from Tuesday, September25th of the year2007.
Dear Composers, Your Music is Too Long. I went to a concert earlier this week of South African Music, most of which was delightful, including a new string quartet (No. 9!) by Kevin Volans, whom I love, and a piece of his called Shiva, which was Too Long. The issue of Too Long is, I think, pretty simple. If you put a piece of furniture in a room, it’s obvious about two seconds after you step back from it that it is Too Big. So how is it that composers we know and love can write music that is straight-up too long? The issue, too, is one of scale, which is why I like the furniture comparison. Steve Reich’s Drumming insists on length to experience the processes within; it can last between forty minutes to upwards of an hour. And yet, it doesn’t feel long because of the proportions.
I don’t feel like my music is totally immune from this problem, either. The instinct to over-stuff, to over-load, is especially problematic for me because I want my music to be like giant, endless meals with a thousand options and sauces and tangential loaves of bread I bought just because I liked the way the loaf was braided. Of course, of course, the most successful meal is, like, a bowl of mussels and a glass of wine and a salad, but during the creative process, such as she is, you go to the market and leave with entirely unnecessary ingredients and to throw it out is a waste. I listened yesterday to a piece I wrote in 1999 ““ a sextet for two violins, flute, clarinet, percussion and piano ““ which is Too Long, and it’s only nine minutes long! I know what happened though. One idea lead to another and I couldn’t help myself, and, most importantly, nobody told me better. Now, whenever I “finish” a piece, I let it sit, and then I play it through in my head with the score in real-time and without fail, I end up cutting 10% of it.
So, you all know what I’m talking about. You go to the New Music Concert and the textures are appealing, the information is vivid and valid, the performances are excellent. And then there arrives a moment. And in that moment you think to yourself, “Is it possible that this is still happening? What time even is it.” And then you reconnect, and you listen, and you realize, this is still going on. And then you start looking up on the stage to see how many pages are left on the parts. And then the cellist fold out one of the pages to reveal THREE MORE. Say what you will; this is a problem. I know that we are all suffering from MTV-Generation-4.5-minute attention-span this that and the other thing, but that’s not actually true. I think, actually, most people my age ““ non musicians and musicians alike ““ would be happy to listen to long music. I saw people listen raptli to Music for Eighteen Musicians at 3 AM o’clock in the morning! You see all sorts of teenagers at the Ring.
Liz points out that in all other forms of the arts there are editors ““ and, of course, visual artists usually have constraints of space (your painting cannot be larger than the wall, your prints can only be so big), and video artists, well, their shit is actually too long especially(!) ““ who will run length control. Your movie had better clock in at under ninety minutes or it will not be a movie. I’m not necessarily suggesting that “too long” is a function of “length,” though, because as I said, I have written a lot of six minute pieces that are too long and a lot of twelve minute pieces that are not long enough. In fact, my ballet (29 minutes!) wasn’t long enough (by 17 bars). Part of my obsessive awareness of length comes from a liturgical context; the rhythms of church music are pretty proportional to the size of your space and your congregation ““ you can’t have a twelve-minute anthem if only sixty people are getting up to take communion, nor can you have a two minute piece if you have all of Leeds needing to get their Host on. I usually try to apply the same sense of scale (derived from the portentousness of the occasion, the number of players, the needs of the content, the maximum length implied by the agreement to write the piece in the first place) to concert music and I think it works pretty well.
I guess what I am suggesting is that given a time constraint (nine minutes, say), there is only a certain amount of stuff that is going to fit there. I am going to vow to be more aggressive with my own editing and am going to implore that other people be savage with themselves, too. That way, we can all share a bowl of mussels after the concert.
[PS, this post is Too Long on purpose, see how I let the ideas remain unfolded? and it reads a little crazy? To fix this post what I would do is cut out a whole paragraph, and focus it in two brackets (Seafood:Church:Church:Seafood) and skip the MTV and Wagnerian asides. But I’m leaving it this way to prove a point.]