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Too Long

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 made-to-measure.jpgfrom 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 image.jpgthe 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 t240375a.jpgyour 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.]


  • I often feel a slight frisson of excitement when the violins turn a page of music, and reveal that it was the last page turn, and that there is now music on the left side of the stand, but not the right. The end is finally near, thank you sweet baby Jesus.

  • I was at the Volans concert, and we did share a bowl of mussels, not actual mussels, but pasta. And we didn’t mention the fact that it was Too Long, but it was clearly so; perhaps no one needed to mention it. Or perhaps Kevin sitting ten feet away kept us from the subject. I loved his music, all of it, great variety, great sense of drama, beautiful chord choices, excellent timbral elements, and good control of his material . But the pacing was off. Too many repetitions, formally and thematically; very many times each section was just a few bars TL.

    The lack of editing in our field is a function of both the inherent solitary work, and the fact that few of us trust anyone else enough to work with them as an ‘editor.’ But I did just that on my last piece, and it was fantastically helpful. Indeed, it inspired me to cut something like 5%.

    To use your analogy, I think the temptation to serve everything you have bought is great, but as you say so well, the best meal is the simple, well-articulated one; we taste each ingredient only if it is not overloaded with superfluous spices, or too many courses.

    I wonder what M. Volans has to say about such things. I went to his pre-concert lecture, and he seemed intent on reversing what he deemed unnecessary preconceptions about pacing, that we have been programmed by pop music to expect a shift every twenty seconds.

    But while I’ll admit that it’s a matter of aesthetics to a certain extent, there is a human need for novelty and excitement, and we want to be told a story-a story with unexpected shifts, and spooky, amazing scenery. And we want it to be well-told. Okay, I’m off to other parts of your site. That was a fantastic post, and I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.

  • Great post…

  • Lovely post, but I if I had written it, would of cut it after the sentence on salad. Which of course makes all kinds of statements about my own compositional process, and now you’ve made me go sit in the corner and think about it. Perhaps I’m a miniaturist and didn’t know it?

  • We’ve had this discussion about editors and editing in music before, haven’t we? And I always plead for brutal self-editing but simply don’t trust the wisdom of crowds … or most editors.

    Can you imagine what Bertelsmann would do with Proust, say, if first confronted with the MSS today?

    But you’re right that length is largely a matter of perception.

  • Very well put, Mr. Muhly, I could not agree more. Would that more composers, authors, musicologists, etc., have your insight on this topic…

  • Completely on point post, the kind of thing that addresses one of the 800lbs gorilla’s in the room which people refrain from addressing for fear of offending. I’d extend it to say that “too long” is a problem that afflicts many arts outside of music and video art.

    There’s a Duchamp notion, which I can’t quote exactly, that was a kind of mantra for me at one point: that any book over 200 pages was probably too long. As much as I respect Caro for writing the Power Broker, I only made it to p-400 or so of that book, and I tried real hard.

    I tend to think one contributing factor to “too long” at this moment in time is (1) the internets and how they remove the length constraints of traditional publishing (be it CDs run times, the cost of paper), and (2) lack of money (editors cost money in any discipline so why not fire them, reduce their ranks, or transform their job from forcing concision to making acquisitions! the going rates for most magazine & newspaper journalism have been stagnant since the 1960s, so fuck trying to edit anything down!) and of course there is the matter of (3) ego. But that’s an entirely different conversation…

    I hope this comment has not been “too long.”

  • AMEN!

  • Yup. And the other problem is that Dear Music Directors, your concerts are Too Long.

  • But what would Gertrude Stein have said ?

  • Another thought. To me, a good length also depends on the context.

    An example: your “A Hudson Cycle” is probably just right in length for a live performance, but when I lie down, eyes closed, plugged in to my iPod, I want it to go on for another 15-20 minutes or so. Something about hearing it plugged in changes my perception of time and I really want to live in that world for much longer than I can.

    Why not create alternative versions of the same piece tailored for different listening technologies?

  • […] tangentially, Nico has a good post about new music that’s too long, too. Of course, it’s problematic in many of the ways that the Holland is – but in, well, a […]