This was primarily written on a tumultuous journey back from MATA, via Copenhagen, where I had some unexpected space in which to try and summarise my thoughts. It contains a little summary of my time at MATA followed by some thoughts on programming long pieces
I had a delightful time at MATA.
Among the delights was a truly committed and, for me, moving performance of my piece, A Noise So Loud, by the wonderful Liminar. It is the first time I have got to hear the piece and I was glad to find it pretty much as I expected, and only requiring minor revision.
I was also pleased that reactions to the piece corresponded to my intentions. The most common thing I head was that it felt familiar but “off”, constantly landing in unexpected ways, while also being emotionally direct. A kind review in New York Classical Review described it as ‘made with brilliant material,’ going on to say:
While the notes were avant-garde in the contemporary context, the music was presented, deliberately, as familiar tonal chamber music. The result was utterly uncanny—the ear can adapt quickly to different tunings, but not with this piece. The weird sound and neo-romantic style made it sound like a great score to a film noir.
It also criticised it for being a little too long. It’s easy for me to write that up to some infelicities in the performance, but I will give the criticism some more thought than that. More on length, later. I’m actually a little more concerned by the common use of the term ‘romantic’ to describe my work. That word also cropped up in this rather more neutral account of the work by I Care If You Listen. I don’t think of it in that way, and will give some thought about how to achieve an emotional directness that satisfies me without calling up those specific musical tropes.
The festival as a whole held some true wonders. I was particularly affected by Kristin Boussard’s Ecdysis. Framed by mournful brass, two male singers began a wordless, somewhat lamenting figure. They then placed a cardboard tube between their mouths, changing the sound to a muffled, claustrophobic one. Then, they placed their mouths on top of each others’ and continued to sing. This vocal kiss sounded astonishing: their voices were filtered by the resonant spaces in the others’ body, creating a strange, shifting modulation of sound. This was combined with the profound sense of intimacy, uncanniness, and unity that the symbolic action provoked.
Carlos Gutierrez Quiroga’s Jintili intimate piece for handmade pipes and whistles was a beautiful musical object. Somehow, its three sections felt like religious panels, the piece had a static permanence that made you suspect that it was playing before you had begun to hear it, and would continue long after you had stopped.
I also very much liked Hugo Morales Murguia’s Generador I, whose physical rendering of pulse-minimalism was well-paired with Boussard’s piece, Jenna Lyle’s strikingly original, virtually indescribable Let them stop swaying; then there won't be any wind for wind and bodies and Wubbels’s viola-showcase.
Beyond these specificities, the festival surfaced a recurrent theme in my thinking, which I’ll use this blog post to explore.
I like long music. I typically find that I enjoy long pieces more than other people do, and I am often frustrated by the lack of long pieces in contemporary music. One of the most standard concert formats in contemporary music is a succession of 10-15 minute long works with an interval in the middle.
When I say I want to see more long pieces, I don’t mean minimal, Wandelweiser-esque expanses. While these sometimes appeal, they’re not what I find myself missing. Nor do I mean the twenty-minute prestige-piece for orchestra so graciously granted to composers before the scores are then locked in an impenetrable Fortress of Despair, to be played again only on Judgement Day. Nor do I mean narrative music, when staging, film or multimedia provide a platform (excuse?) for longer material.
I miss two distinct types of long-form works. The first is the type I associated with old-school classical music. Longer works, often in a handful of movements, whose material demarks time through its transformation. The second is the collection of shorter forms, as is typical in albums and song cycles. Here the time is passed by the emergence of novelty and our gradual mental assembly of these novelties into a coherence of sorts.
So why do I like this music?
Firstly, I think it’s because we live in such a linguistically fractured musical landscape; any two pieces on a programme are unlikely to share much in the way of stylistic touch points. As a result, concerts often involve rapidly shifting from one musical language to another. This can be tiring and frustrating. Just as you have mastered one dialect, the piece is over and we’re suddenly in an entirely new idiom. The language that a passage of music creates can be used to project beyond its immediate confines, creating a framework for relating to the music that you’re listening. In a multi-movement piece, we actively construct this framework as the piece goes along. This leaves room for certain responses – shock, bathos, resolution – which are harder to establish without this framework.
There’s a cliche that that nothing can surprise anymore. Not so, our expectations are easily created anew. Longer pieces are a useful tool for creating that and avoiding the semantic exhaustion of ceaseless novelty.
Secondly, a longer piece shifts the relationship between the players and the composer. A long piece often raises the stakes for the composer, provoking a significant personal investment. But my intuition is that it makes life easier for the players, allowing a kind of flow that is hard in a succession of shorter works. Performing four ten-minute works with a vast array of different techniques, notational conventions, and musical goals is often more taxing than one 40-minute work, which is likely to have greater consistency. A larger work also provides a hook for the event. Players, audience members, publicists etc. can frame the concert more clearly in their minds. There’s something about a big work that feels like a project – an enterprise undertaken together, with high stakes and high reward.
These factors – a greater capacity for semantic play, higher stakes and strong flow – combine to create a fertile ground for profundity. The ability to express big things (by which I don’t necessarily mean express specific concepts) is, to my mind, made more feasible by longer works. This is both because the composer has a more flexible canvas and greater investment, and also because the audience has a greater capacity to invest in the work. While, of course, some may switch off, a longer work gives permission for a greater, more extensive enthralment.
These thoughts are not intended as a criticism of shorter forms, but of programming that consists of lots of short-form pieces. This is particularly annoying when all the pieces in the programme are of a very similar length. This is something that sometimes happens in competitions with guideline submission lengths, and the length is often in the 10-20 minute area. There are a number of reasons why this feels strange.
Firstly, I think that we like to imagine that the piece’s length is in some way internally determined, that its end comes round at the right time for the material, form, genre etc. Having a bunch of very different pieces all have the same length somehow undermines this, emphasising the arbitrary nature of our musical economy.
Second, our expectations, as I mentioned earlier, are set quite easily. Having short pieces means that those that are even a little longer soon begin to feel mammoth. We can see this phenomenon on a broader cultural scale when we look at the language that surrounds reviews of albums whose songs are routinely longer than 5 minutes. Adjectives like ‘sprawling’ or ‘epic’ are frequently applied to a track shorter than a standard American ad-break.
Finally, and most obviously, this technique causes dullness simply through lack of variety. There’s something faintly comic in attending a concert that pushes the boundaries of sound and performance but sticks to a timetable rigid enough for primary school.
Why are pieces not long? The biggest fear in commissioning a long piece is that the long piece might suck. When a long piece sucks, that’s a disaster for all involved. This fear, however, betrays a lack of confidence. This often finds its expression in the habitual claim that composers ought to cut their pieces more. While this is sometimes true, it feels like a pessimistic stand-in for saying that composers should write better pieces, with more gripping material. I can’t help but feel that the injunction to make it shorter, rather than to make it better, is connected to a greater cultural under-confidence.
I think there are boring, fundraising-related issues as well. If you’re applying for a single event, it’s harder to demonstrate equity with fewer composers on your docket. If we had more long pieces in concerts, we would likely end up with more all-male concerts, even if the total male:female ratio in new music remained unchanged.
There’s another equity issue at stake. The music scene has, to my mind, moved in a more egalitarian direction. We don’t have so many meteoric rises any more, but rather a fairer sharing of resources amongst a broader set of composers. Highlighting one composer to do a large project could come across as a resurrection of genius-paradigm of music making, which has rightly been challenged. This is a concern. Nevertheless, if people are to prosper, artistically and financially, as creators of music, then there needs to be an outlet for their more grandiose artistic aims.
The absence of long piece is also, I think, caused by a certain stylistic attachment to an ideology of structural unity. Relatively few pieces are comprised of excerptible sub-pieces or are structured as re-orderable collections. Such collections – the mainstay of the classical recital repertoire and the singer-songwriter gig – allow a wonderful flexibility of concert form. You can present the collection together, excerpt a single work as a character piece, reorder them creatively, and create a dialogue with the structuring of material that is challenging with more rigidly integrated works.
A final note: while I notice the abundance of 10-minute pieces in concerts of younger composers and of brand-new work, the new work that makes it into the contemporary classical repertoire tends to skew longer than average. Pieces of the length of Espaces Acoustique or In Vain are not uncommon amongst the best-known works of contemporary music, yet are rather uncommon amongst those commissioned and played. Perhaps that illustrates that such pieces have a higher success rate, and that commissioning more of them might be beneficial to the art in general.