Sunday, July 13, 2014

N is for Non-Stop

We (musicians, composers in particular) tend to have a lot invested in the habit that a piece of music is taken in in a single stretch.  Okay, operas and ballets have their acts and intermissions and symphonies and suites have their movements, but the assumption is that the audience receives a whole work of music in as close to one near-continuous audition as possible.  (There are some parallel arguments about the unity of the content of the work taking place in that continuity, but that's for another time, another place.)  There is definitely value to be had in this and some exquisite and exquisitely long works (think La Monte Young or Morton Feldman) have their lengthy continuity deep in their compositional and auditional DNA, if often risking that boundary of gullibility between the musically sublime and a cultic ritual of exaggeration, but it not an absolute value. Pieces of brief duration, pieces that can be heard and processed well before joints start to ache or chair start to squeak or fits of coughing flock in and the concert hall air becomes stale, can be just as profound an experience, given the right balance of material and time.

But the durations of the biggest musical works are somewhat modest when compared with those required to read very long works of literature or episodic television dramas or some computer games.    I'm something of an obsessive reader (and re-reader) of big novels and some are so engaging that they begin to take over my waking life (and much of the dream life in-between), and although I try to give as much continuity as possible to the experience of reading, there are inevitable breaks (sleep, eat, personal necessity, kids, dog, spouse, work...) which, ultimately, don't seem like intrusions, just part of the larger continuity that, say, My Fortnight Reading Against The Day (or whatever) happens to form.  (Okay, this is just a guess on my part. I haven't actually tried  reading a book in such a way that all distractions could be eliminated and total continuity is assured (and, come to think of it, actually have no interest in trying such an experience, thinking of what it might entail: an isolation chamber, tied to a moderately comfortable chair, tube feeding, adult diapers, massive amounts of caffeine and/or Modafinil.)) Do we accept such breaks in the continuity of reading literature when we continue to assume that a piece of music has to be heard all at once to "really get it"?

I'll contend that the big novel, like the serious television serial of recent years, and perhaps the computer game, offers some formal opportunities for the large musical work, both in terms of flexibility and complexity but also the potential for extension, if we can simply take a more relaxed approach to continuity. (In part, this is why recorded music so rapidly overtook concert-going.  Also, those famous attempts at multi-day opera cycles (Wagner, Stockhausen, Braxton) have come to depend on their being able to be taken in pieces, often widely separated in time and wildly rearranged in continuity.)


Petr B said...

I´ve always wondered why is musical time so slow - while I can sit through a rather bad 90 minutes movie in a cinema without any kind of physical problems, when I listen to a (very great) piece of music of similar duration, I always feel some kind of discomfort (my back aches, I need to scratch here and there (and even there...), I´d like to stretch, the hall feels too warm... whatever). This happens all the time, no matter how good the music is and how comfortable is the seating. I would say that listening concentratedly to a 60 minutes piece of music is like watching 3 movies in one go or something... It´s physical, the time in music simply unfolds much slower.

Daniel Wolf said...

That's a really interesting observation. Does not having enough visual stimuli affect this? Or is it just the intensity of the focus on music alone? I actually find musical time to be quite elastic -- some music moves at the pace of a glacier and other music just zooms by too fast. Robert Erickson talked about "taffy time". Also, I find too much contemporary music is written with a basic pulse of mm 60 (the tyranny of the clock) and moves at such a ponderous speed that it gets boring, but at 80 or more as a basic pulse for events to bop on by, you can have both slow and fast tempi that sound good by subdividing or multiplying this pulse. (I suspect that this is because 80 is closer to our inner clocks.)