Monday, February 28, 2011

February Pieces

The 28th of February — last day, shortest month — is a good day to remember that we tend to take absolute duration far too seriously, particularly when absolute duration is ultimately arbitrary. Competitions, job searches, concert planners continue to be obsessed with defining minimum and maximum durations. While a traditional broadcast (or those performances in downtown LA, finely coordinated to assure audiences optimal on- and off-ramp times for the freeways) will benefit from some precisely-planned durations, the restrictions of an LP or CD side are no longer relevant and we should instead welcome the opportunity to explore new solutions to the compositional problems of putting material into a stretch of time. (Yes, the judges of a competition or member of a job search have a finite amount of time, but they always have the possibility of shutting the score or fast-forwarding a recording and don't suggest that they don't do that already!) In any case, the problem is rarely too much or too many sounds and too long or too brief a piece; the problem is more often the wrong sounds at the wrong points in time. (I recently watched some fifth-graders agonizing over an assignment which included the instruction to "write no more than one page"; the focus of their attentions inevitably became the length, not the quality of their answers: how much better it would have been had they been agonizing over whether they had answered the question in a satisfactory way rather than how many lines of paper they had filled!) The calendar makers were wise enough to recognize that the length of a month could be flexible, in order to compensate for discrepancies between the sum of whole days and the length of a single trip around the sun; likewise, music benefit when composers are wise enough to recognize that one size will not always fit. So, whenever you have doubt that material and the time assigned are not quite in synch, remember you always have the option to write a February piece.

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