I just finished reading Molly Sheridan’s interview with David Morneau, who spent the past year writing a 60-second piece every day, over at New Music Box. With Morneau’s project, 60×60 (which Morneau sites as his inspiration), and the Microscore Project, music of extremely short duration seems to be all the rage these days. Are we seeing the rise of the miniature as a new net-fueled genre? Any veterans of composing mini-music or attending the relevant concerts care to contribute lessons learned?

10 Responses to “Mini-music”
  1. As one of those “veterans” of short pieces, I think this is the confluence of several streams: the Internet and its public navel-gazing in blogs, the validation of short forms per se in both nonpop and as sonic icons in advertising, the access to highly capable electronic tools, the facile grabbing of good ideas from one another, and a dramatic change from the non-productivity of previous music generations.

    Morneau’s pieces are good and some are brilliant, but in the pseudo-democracy of the web, they appear no better or worse than anyone else’s daily splatter of sound or words or visuals. That is no criticism of Morneau’s work at all, but rather of the check-it-out-and-move-along character of the audience. More, more, more. Daily is better. Blog more, show more, don’t let your site get stale.

    The short form has always been around — chorales, studies, preludes, miniatures, etc. 60-second pieces have also been around for a long time, including recordings from 30 and 40 years ago (recently discussed on the soundasart list). One of the earliest web-originated activities was the Frog Peak Collaborations Projects with 115 minute-long pieces. The original source file was distributed online, but 1996 was a long time ago (a time of 14400 baud dialup) and the results were compiled on CD. The increase of short forms also corresponds to a decrease in the length of the ‘complete’ composition, including sonic icons for (for example) the startup of PCs and Macs, the Intel audio logo, the 4- and 5-note CNN and ESPN thematic icons, etc.

    Access to highly capable and reasonably inexpensive electronic tools is also a major contributor. Creating an electronic piece in short order can be achieved because there are no scores or parts to create, performers to engage, recordings to be allowed and made, etc., nor physical splicing to be done and copy degradation to fret about (in fact, degradations are now among the tools of choice). The electronic tools act directly, and when it is done, it is done. Writing, performing and posting a one-minute string quartet, guitar duo, or orchestral piece simply isn’t happening in a day. (Ask Daniel Wolf, who did a scored piece a day this past November at his blog Renewable Music.)

    Grabbing good ideas from one another happens more often with the Internet. Frog Peak had a little influence, then there was more with Suzan-Lori Parks’s one-a-day plays, Hermeto Pascoal’s daily acoustic pieces, Stéphane Trois Carrés and his daily multimedia, Eve Beglarian’s Book of Days, Nick Jainschigg’s daily paintings, my own “We Are All Mozart” project, and of course 60×60 itself (with worldwide concerts, CDs, and web distribution, plus 60-second videos for an entire concert). Morneau was the last in a line, at least until the 60×60 concept was copied by the folks over in Udine for their own 60-second piece competition.

    What these good ideas also have in common is something else new to the nonpop world, a world for several generations influenced by that sparse Webernesque output malaise: productivity. Some of you participated in my productivity survey two years ago, and it revealed a distinct change underway from my generation of productivity slugs. Productivity (like improvisation) is no longer a Bad Word. In 2008, no one will castigate Morneau, Parks, Pascoal, Trois Carrés, Beglarian, or Jainschigg for their productivity (though I’ve been whalloped for having made my own project be 100 pieces on specified commissions, not self-driven). Productivity is expected (and it’s worth contrasting the attitude here with that of many of the regular NewMusicBox angst-driven commentators, who still seem caught up in the Webern trap.)

    So to answer the original question, I don’t think this the net as fuel but rather the net as enabler, together with a greater “training” to focus on the detail of a short time span (compare a TV commercial from 1980 vs. today, and just count the cuts), the expectation of daily productivity of some sort all around, and a shameless willingness to be laid bare in public.


  2. J.C. Combs says:

    Never heard of the term mini-music, although most of what I write is short. That gave me the notion to do that same thing, works between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. This is going to be fun.

  3. Lanier Sammons says:

    Dennis – thanks for such a thoughtful response to my little post. I was aware that short pieces on the web had a prior history, but I wasn’t aware of its full depth. Congrats (belated though they may be) on completing WAAM, as well.

    It is unfortunate that Morneau’s pieces (and similar projects) don’t seem to be generating critical commentary. I wonder if that’s partially due to the fact that there are now 365 minutes of musical up to be reviewed. More likely, I bet it’s b/c reviewers (myself included) are still stuck in the old CD/concert model when gathering materials to review. I’ll have to work on that.

    I did notice, though, that Morneau has a few comments from other composers inspired to write similarly – that’s something.

    I also wonder how 60×60 and Microscore relate to the expectation of productivity and “shameless willingness to be laid bare in public.” I’d think the motivation to focus on mini-music from a presenter/performer standpoint must be a little different.

    J.C. – I think “mini-music” is my coinage. As Dennis rightfully points out, short form isn’t new, but I think the projects I mentioned and many of the others Dennis added deserve something other than “miniatures” as a descriptive term. Let us know how the composing goes!

  4. The lack critical commentary is an important observation, and you are right in that we are still locked into a CD/concert model. The media critics (mainstream and alternative) were very late to the virtual table, and pre-made blogging software doesn’t change the fact that most are still blinking their eyes awake. We will need one full generation to escape the weight given to physical objects and face-to-face events. Being physically and economically isolated here in Vermont, I sought online media early (since 1981, before MIDI) and finding little, eventually created with David Gunn our own forum for it in 1995 with K&D. (You can’t imagine how little credibility we had with the established media.)

    But for us back then, CDs remained a convenience. MP3 had just been released, and just about everything was dialup. Even the server we used at WGDR for the first two years only had one-half a T-1 connection outgoing. It wasn’t until the millennium that accepting files online because practical (i.e., when I got cable access at home).

    Many of us here find online activity almost second-nature now, and even as mainstream and alternate media catch up to the ‘second life’, so to speak, they are not yet able nor perhaps willing to sort through the unedited content on personal websites, social networking sites, and online broadcast sites. Rather than be critical leaders, they accept the editorial rule of the concert hall and the record company — an interesting turn of events as the critical community falls increasingly behind the action, following at a distance and hoping desperately someone actually cares.

    That action may still happen in some cities where, if we are to believe the survey currently being hyped as representative of composers, we congregate, but it seems to me that the Frog Peak, 60×60, Morneau, WAAM (etc.) projects could not have happened offline. But more important, online-ness is integrated with their concept and execution.

    This is a critical bind because it requires critics to put themselves at risk in finding, listening to a coherent project, and having some standard for making sense of it. Each 60×60 is an hour — perhaps listenable by the interested critic — but Morneau’s was over 6 hours and mine was over 12. Does one view these as one would an opera? And what about the 60×60 that includes as many videos?

    Critical commentary is, frankly, too risky. There are individuals capable of it, but they have yet to appear in the mainstream and alternative media. These capable critics are online only. A next generation will accept their credibility as the print media transforms ever so painfully into something different.

    But — and this is venturing into another topic — the online mainstream media (such as Salon and Slate) were created by and are written by a generation ignorant of nonpop. Salon doesn’t even cover classical music (save for their Glenn Gould piece the other day) much less present-day nonpop. The ignorance level (and ignorance is truly the word) is staggering. They are nonpop troglodytes. There is the need for critical commentary, but these critics are incapable of it. On one hand are the unaware, on the other the ignorant. A bind indeed.

    As to the expectation of productivity, yes, I do believe this comes into play. The number of personal projects that involve composing numbers or sets of compositions, on personal deadlines, seems to be on the rise. Maybe I’m just sensitive to it because it’s something I’ve been pushing for the past several years, but I do believe that the scorn heaped upon productivity by my generation and my seniors is ebbing, and that the almost knee-jerk association of productivity with mediocrity has been shown false.

    Finally, the “laid bare” bit: It has to do with the rise of blogging and social networking, and the consequential leakage into other areas. Daniel Wolf’s score-a-day self-challenge in November was another online phenomenon, because what would it have mattered if he penned and dated a daily score in 1960? Who would have noticed? Likewise Morneau and Trois Carrés and WAAM. Eventually a historian might have turned up these efforts, but chances are they would never have been undertaken without the discipline of commitment within and to a virtual public. There used to be a business maxim, ‘if it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen’. Online it becomes a virtual but not less meaningful trail of events.

    When work is infused with online-ness, it is also infused with a public meaning that is very much to the bone, even more than nakedness. Comment is immediate, from colleagues, from the uninitiated (oh, how startling it was to see my YouTube opera clip commented: “wuts wit the horrible music in the background?”). I mean that this is a willing nakedness, public exhibitionism. Morneau could have kept it all to himself and later issued a 5-CD set, but he posted daily online; Wolf could have done the same, publishing the collection of 30 scores, but he posted daily online.

    Speaking of 60×60, K&D returns to the air for one live show on Saturday July 19th from 2:30-4:30pm with a 60×60 call-in extravaganza. Streaming is from wgdr.org.


  5. Rusty Banks says:

    I like the idea of miniatures, and I like the idea of much larger works made of miniatures. Musical “logos” are ubiquitous in commercial culture, so “miniature” just seems accessible to more people. I also propose that for certain subject matter it just works better.

    Look at experimental film. Often it is shorts, and perhaps because of budget, but artistically, I think it works better (this year’s Black Maria Festival was awe-inspiring!). I have to say I find trailers for Matthew Barney Movies better than the actual movies! The Bjork videos for Drawing Restraint (from Drawing Restraint?) are great, and I bet I like them more than I would the whole movie (disclosure: haven’t seen it so maybe not).

    I think we’ll see music (not all of it, just some) move to a less linear format. Something more like installations you walk through than something as temporal. I guess a lot of us are already doing this, and it does get critical attention in VISUAL art circles as part of larger installations. I still love to write, perform, and hear concert music, but the more spacially-oriented work I’m doing seems to connect my sonic outlook with more listeners these days…

    So a “miniature” work can be used to accomplish two extremes:

    A: Miniaturization can make the start and stop of the work more conspicuous to the listeners or…

    B: …miniature works can be combined and looped at different places in a space so that there seems to be no beginning or ending.

    Many will point out that this (multiple things in one space) has been going on for a while, but I say there is a critical difference. Originally, the idea was to blur things sonically. Now, sonic separation is used for the sake of clarity.

  6. Mr. Bacon says:

    After making it through the interesting and lengthy comments above, I don’t recall reading much about the content and musical direction of these short pieces versus longer, more traditional pieces and forms. What I like about the idea of short pieces is that, by nature of their length, they must escape or at least devalue the idea that development is essential for effective music. The ideas themselves are enough, not the ideas and their development. I think this is an important step in shedding our dependence on the status quo, on paradigms of past eras that no longer apply.

    A few criticisms:
    Why must a short piece be composed every day? I’ve written 10-minute pieces in one week, and I’ve also written one minute of music, or nothing at all, in a week’s time.

    Why the nice, neat numbers like 30 or 60 or 365? Why the exact durations? I heard Carrie Mallonee’s piano piece the other day, which consisted of 44 short pieces, each of which used very key on the piano once. They were different lengths, and the last one might not have broken two seconds (you can probably guess how she wrote that one). That number had nothing to do with the clock or the calendar, but is half of the number of keys on the piano, so we still have a predetermined limit. It seems like these numeric requirements are there so composers produce–at least in Morneau’s case, he had writer’s block, and by giving himself this daily regularity, it got him to compose a lot more. From the interview, his project seems largely self-oriented: to get him back to composing and to promote his work (through the net). That’s not to say that the content isn’t interesting and worth listening to, however; I’m enjoying lots of the pieces. In reality the intent doesn’t matter–it’s the results.

    But I think the next step in legitimizing short pieces is to treat them like any other piece–not to put restrictions on their duration or how often they’re composed. And not presenting them all together on one concert. When we contextualize short works like this, we’re labeling them as exceptions or differences from the norm, when they shouldn’t need any extra justification at this point.

    Speaking of the digital second life, Tim Risher just organized his first Second Life concert! http://hdartists.wordpress.com/2008/07/06/our-first-concert/

  7. My only comment about restrictions is the extra ‘burn’ generated to meet them … think sonnet or haiku or 45rpm or tv commercial — one could express the same thoughts, perhaps eloquently, but the extra imagination and commitment called upon to meet arbitrary restrictions can be liberating.


  8. I’ve been meaning to say something about this thread, but it is a little bit negative within a new scene that I think is overall extremely positive, so I’ll be brief.

    There is an element to these calls for scores, that is commodifying composers in a way which demeans their efforts and at times can lead to a complete lack of acknowledgement of authorship. For example, I’ve been to several of these concerts, and it can be very hard to keep track of who’s piece is playing when. To top it off, the pieces are often played with little pause.

    The effect cumulatively is a disenfranchisement of the composer and an aggrandizement of the performers.

    I just think it’d be nice if any groups that do these micro-piece concerts made an extra effort to insure that this doesn’t happen. I love the scene – it’s very challenging and it can show off our talents where longer pieces might not.

  9. Rusty says:

    I think it’s a shame that attribution gets lost, but I kinda dig the way all the pieces add up and connect in ways not intended. As far as imposing guidelines, I’m OK with that. Every piece I write has a specific premier planned, and needs to be a specific instrumentation and length. In the case of minitures, I like the “daredevil” aspect of having the confine 1 minute. I would also like to see more events where composers must create a work in a specific and public time frame (composers: start your notation programs!).

    IMPORTANT POINT: not always. These daredevil acts should be a sometimes thing. We always need to think AND rather than OR. Why should anyone ALWAYS notate, or ALWAYS improvise, or ALWAYS use electronics, or NEVER use electronics, or ONLY write for commissions, or ONLY write for themselves? Do it all!

  10. I have trouble with the notion that a 1-minute piece constitutes a miniature. Context is everything : the German composer Hans-Joachim Hespos has a delightful 1-second long composition titled Scratch (if memory serves), which calls for a bevy of rare and exotic instruments for its correct presentation. I love such ‘incorrect’ projects, which completely frustrate the requirements of institutions and concert organizers!