At Jerry’s suggestion from the front page I’ll stir up the nest with several thoughts about composing and the composition world:

1. Length. On the front page an author refers to a relatively short work, at a little under twenty minutes. To me twenty minutes isn’t short, but not long either. It’s somewhere in between. Has our perspective changed over the past 100 years? Were Mozarts early symphonies, some lasting about ten minutes, considered long or short? Is a twenty minute orchestral work short and a twenty minute trio for violin, viola and cello long?

2. Similarly, have composers been writing pieces that are too long? Do we become so caught up in the “development” of a work, proving how clever and composer-like we can be, that we lose sight of what our “line” is saying (le grande ligne)?

3. Unsimilarly, how many of you include in your bios “internationally renowned,” “critically acclaimed,” “growing international (or national) reputation,” etc? If you do, why? Have we talked about the purpose of the bio yet on the CF?

67 Responses to “Disparate Thoughts”
  1. I feel the same way, Samuel — I vastly prefer “About Eight Minutes” to “Allegro ma non troppo,” and I include references to the length of my works as often as feasible. But I’ve also known people who don’t want to “get” the form on first hearing. And in a way, I understand: you never “get” the form for the first time more than once — what’s the hurry? Why not let the form gradually become clear over several hearings?

    The answer is, we don’t have time for several hearings, we want these things right away. Which should be our problem, not the music’s.

    I hope it’s clear I’m playing devil’s advocate here, shooting holes in my own preferences.

  2. david toub says:

    Bartok used to be very detailed in his time annotations. That said, it can create issues in terms of interpretation and validity. I read about this a lot in regard to Feldman’s music, where longer performances seem to have more street cred than shorter ones. But is this necessarily true? I like Louis Goldstein’s performance of Triadic Memories best, and it is indeed among the slowest out there. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything necessarily wrong with interpretations that are faster—indeed, there are no metronome markings in the score, so in theory, any interpretation could be valid. I’ve heard both the Ives Ensemble’s recording of Feldman’s St Qt #2 (5 hrs) and the Flux Quartet (6 hrs), and they’re both excellent and both quite valid performances. Yet there’s an hour difference, more or less, between them.

    I think we need to provide guideposts to the performers, but leave it up to their intuition as to how long the piece will last in terms of their tempo choices. This used to be particularly true of much downtown music, where depending on the performers’ choices, pieces might take 45 minutes or several hours. Consider how many performances there have been of In C and how disparate they are with regard to duration. The original performances of Reich’s Drumming used to last much longer than more recent performances—obviously, none of this is set in stone.

  3. Well, Lawrence – I think music should be written for a single hearing (which should of course be so good that it will make you want to have more hearings).

    We have a distorted perspective on classical music form. We usually listen to classical pieces quite a few times. (because of recordings, etc). We study form in a way that the original audiences didn’t – they were often much more immersed in the classical formal vocabulary, but we study it, particularly those of us who have gone to school and analysed form. So in the classical age, music could be appreciated on a single listening but for us, an idea has come up with the academic approach to classical tradition that form is something that you may only need to get over repeated listenings.

    It’s an idea I don’t like. For that reason, I try to find forms that are rich and that will pay back a repeated listening, but that are dramatically very clear on a first hearing. Stating the length of a piece in the program helps this – it makes up for the fact that we no longer all write pieces that have three or four seven-to-twelve-minute movements. For the same reason, I tend to dislike trying to stuff my pieces with all sorts of surprising turns. I think one surprise can be clearly understood, but lots of them totally confuse the form.

    (What is form? Perhaps: that what you remember about how the piece went.)

  4. Steve Layton says:

    David wrote: I think we need to provide guideposts to the performers, but leave it up to their intuition as to how long the piece will last in terms of their tempo choices.

    That is certainly an option, but also certainly not a given. In music where the composer carefully specifies every pitch, dynamic and articulation, it would seem pretty obvious that they also gave just as much thought to the specific size and shape of time as well. Yet there is a general feeling that performers can — often, should — play around with the temporal. Why? We would not consider a performer playing Beethoven, Stravinsky, Boulez or Feldman, who chose different pitches than what is in the score (some intervals a little larger, some smaller), to be a valid performance, right? Yet we never demand the same fidelity toward time.

  5. david toub says:

    But Steve, there’s a difference between pitch and time. The pitches, unless we’re talking about indeterminate/stochastic music, should be played as specified by the composer. But when we’re talking about time, that gets into interpretation. No one suggests performers should interpret the pitches in most compositions, and that’s well accepted. I’m ignoring those subtle microtonal inflections that make great violinists great. But part of what makes an interpretation an interpretation, along with attacks, etc. is tempo. No live performer is a metronome, nor should he or she be. I agree that we don’t demand the same fidelity towards time, but I think that’s because we don’t want to. My iBook can play something back really nicely, with the pitches I specify and durations/tempo I set. So every eighth note is exactly as long as any other eighth note, and every tempo is exactly what I specify. But while that’s all well and good, Steve, it isn’t the same as what a great performer would do in a live situation. Both are valid and both can coexist. But to insist on performers playing most works in a set period of time may be too constraining. That’s where one can have some individuality in terms of interpretation. It might not be to everyone’s liking (just as Glenn Gould’s Brahms interpretation rubbed Bernstein the wrong way), but that’s the beauty of interpretation.

  6. Steve Layton says:

    DAvid wrote: But Steve, there’s a difference between pitch and time. The pitches, unless we’re talking about indeterminate/stochastic music, should be played as specified by the composer. But when we’re talking about time, that gets into interpretation. No one suggests performers should interpret the pitches in most compositions, and that’s well accepted.

    Of course pitch is pitch and time is time. But that pitch “should” be played as specified, and time “interpreted”, has no real basis other than cultural convention. There’s no real reason why we couldn’t reverse the two, as to which is strictly observed and which “interpreted”.

  7. Samuel, this is wonderful — you and I have very different aesthetic interests, but we are on exactly the same page with regard to form. I always want my forms to be immediately graspable, and for listeners to know where they are in the piece at first hearing. I think the fact that two composers can be dissimilar in every other way but this one is fascinating.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all music should be written for a single hearing, though. Ideally, I think music should be written (read: art should be made) for every possible reason, and for every imaginable outcome.

  8. Evan Johnson says:

    But when we’re talking about time, that gets into interpretation.

    Is this not only because precise durations are not as readily reproducible as precise pitches (“precise” being a perceptually context-defined term)? Doesn’t making tempo into a matter of interpretation, full stop, simply make a bug into a feature, in terms of human perception?

    And if so, is that a good enough reason?

  9. Pitch and time….
    They’re both relative. I can be a real stickler about precise tempo. If I get the right tempo, it can be like hang gliding, the notes (plane) just soar along. However, that time marking may only work in the situation I’ve been working in. Each room treats sound differently and weather conditions affect that room from day to day. I once did a piece on an organ in Cologne, where at one point I’d play a minor second and wait for the notes to start beating – it could take anywhere from 5-15 seconds, depending on the weather – and that was just one space with variable atmospheric conditions. So to insist on precise time markings can be counterproductive to the resultant sound you want. I feel there has to be some flexibility. And that doesn’t really even get into interpretation, the note to note variables. And, although we tune mostly to A440, it’s still not universal, but as long as everyone plays in tune (proportionally), it works, and we accept it. Same with tempo. And remember the difference between “In C” and through composed pieces – it’s much more understandable to have variable lengths with the former.

  10. Part of the idea that you can interpret the tempo might be that in classical music, we have grown *so* familiar with the repertoire, that it seemingly allows for highly increased extravaganza in what is ususally termed interpretation.

    Lawrence – I agree of course with your last statement; I just think it’s most useful if the piece gets to the listener the first time – I think everybody will agree that they’d much rather hear somebody go “Man, that was FANTASTIC! When can I hear it again?” than “Well, I don’t know… perhaps if I heard it a couple more times…”

  11. Adam Baratz says:

    When playing binary forms from the Baroque through Classical periods, isn’t the proper performance practice to provide some variation for the second go round? Even if you don’t throw in some ornaments, you’ll probably vary the tone color to give a slightly different character. There are lots of little ways of not taking the score literally. I think the general tendency has been for all “parameters” to become equally specific, not just one or two.

  12. I think the concept of precise timings is tied to the development of recording technology. I don’t know of any composers discussing their music in terms of minutes and seconds before the 20th-century. With our listening habits these days, often one of the first things we know about a piece is its exact duration.

  13. The MM-system is minute-based, though.

  14. True enough. And interesting that it was used more to establish what “Allegro” meant than to indicate duration.

    Which reminds me, and I wonder if anyone can confirm or deny this: I was told once that Schoenberg at one point tried timing his pieces, then setting the metronome to reflect the speed they would have to be played in order to last the right length. Makes an amusing story, anyway.

  15. Steve Layton says:

    Adam wrote: There are lots of little ways of not taking the score literally…

    Sure, but only insofar as the composer envisioned for that particular score, right? There’s no automatic carte blanche for the performer. You wouldn’t use the practice of Nono to approach Handel; should it be any more O.K. to bring the practice of Handel to Nono? And there’s the case of Cage, where some of the most “indeterminate” scores require absolutely meticulous score-following, no fudging allowed.

    …I think the general tendency has been for all “parameters” to become equally specific, not just one or two.

    It still seems strange that pitch is the only thing generally held completely sacrosant. Performers can nudge all kinds of details regarding timings, dynamics and articulations, but can never change a line C# G E to C# G# E just because it sounds better to them or is part of their “interpretation”.

  16. Adam Baratz says:

    Steve: I was only referring to performance practices that allow for certain liberties. My counterexample was only meant to say that there are situations where you can not only change notes, but add notes. Ornamentation is an interpretive choice. I’m not saying you can mix-and-match performance practices. You still have a responsibility to the text.

    As a related aside, I’d toss out the example of critical editions. They change pitches based on manuscripts and other sources. Does being a musicologist give you a license to screw with scores like this? Charles Rosen has an interesting section in “The Frontiers of Meaning” where he talks about some warhouse pieces which he thinks are played all the time with “wrong” notes (based on his own scholarship). He makes the case for the “right” ones, but also makes the point that they’d sound “wrong” in performance because we’re not used to them.

  17. Steve Layton says:

    Does being a musicologist give you a license to screw with scores like this?

    That’s a case of trying to restore the composer’s original intention, never a bad thing in my book. If the Giotto was “atmospherically” grimy & had a fig leaf painted over the private parts for the last 300 years, even if it was well-known & loved like that we’d still like to restore it to what Giotto wanted us to see.

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