Tuesday, August 30, 2016

a few thoughts on Kevin Volans' remarks about how the norm nowadays in new-music is to write under 10 minutes ...

... The norm nowadays is to produce little pieces of under 10 minutes, very often under 5 minutes. This is another byproduct of the so-called music industry. The most obvious difference between 'serious' music and 'popular' music has always been duration. 'Serious' music composers always wrote works on average of over 20 minutes. This requires a more complex and taxing technical ability than writing 5 minutes. Writing a 5 minute piece is frankly, a piece of cake. The difference between writing that or a work of 90 minutes is like the difference between designing a 2 bedroom cottage or a 60 storey skyscraper.

Now it may seem like writing a piece under ten minutes seems like short shrift to someone trained within any kind of Western academic context.  But writing a five minute piece might only be a piece of cake if your primary instrument is a keyboard instrument.  If you're a guitarist writing a continuous five-minute work is not necessarily a piece of cake.  Too many guitarists think that a sonata or a fugue is essentially impossible on the guitar.  A sonata form that lasts five minutes on the guitar is not a piece of cake to write and it will generally not be a piece of cake to play. 

For that matter, the majority of the fugues in Books 1 and 2 of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier could fit into the "under 10 minutes" category, right?  Volans probably wasn't attempting to imply that composing a fugue that's under five minutes is necessarily a piece of cake.  When he laments that serious composers always wrote works on average of more than 20 minutes it reminds me that if I were to send a 25 minute multi-movement work to a guitarist he or she would likely react in a way comparable to a first desk violinist being asked to prep a Mahler symphony or learn all the parts from Messiaen's opera about Saint Francis within a few weeks. 

One of the things I discovered I hated most about 19th century music was that they didn't really innovate in the area of forms, not overall.  You can read Charles Rosen or any number of other writers on the 19th century composers to find out that their innovations were often in the realm of miniatures rather than making fundamental alterations to sonata or other 18th century formal consolidations.  The 18th century could be thought of as having invented French fries.  The Romantic era figured out how to give us curly garlic fries and biggie size it but it's still, basically, a bunch of French fries.  It took the 20th century, so to speak, to invent potatoe chips and come up with some stuff that was actually different from variations on French fries ... but I'm simplifying for effect, obviously.

Now maybe Kyle Gann was right to propose we make way for the guitar era.  If he was right then Volans is bound to be going down the wrong trail in saying or even implying there's a problem with kids these days composing music that's 10 minutes or less.  A six minute work in F minor written at the piano is not the same thing as a six-minute work in F minor written on the guitar.  Some things are harder and some things are easier. 

The analogy Volans makes between designing a 2 bedroom cottage and a 60-storey skyscraper may sound impressive to him but it doesn't seem that  impressive.  is this meant to invoke differences in economy of scale as a stand-in for seriousness?  Cornelisu Cardew wrote decades ago that the real power of a musical work lay in its potential to exert ideological influence.  Okay, running with that for a moment, if we assessed the seriousness of a musicians output based on long-term influence who "ranks" better, Beethoven or Haydn?  Would Haydn's apparent lack of depth compared to Beethoven make him count for less, in spite of having been a formative influence on both Mozart and Beethoven?  To turn the subject to poetics, was T. S. Eliot not influential by dint of failing to be as prolific a poet as others?  Even if I grant Volans' point about how serious composers these days write too short, there can at least be room to prpose that perhaps one of the failings of earlier epocs of music-making was they made things too long or made cognitive demands on their audiences that, however realistic for that time and place, might not be as likely to get a hearing now?

But then I think of how long some people listen to those guitar solos on "Freebird".  That's the other thing, Volans' comment that writing a five minute piece is easy seems to have a particular kind of piece in mind without counting pop music or music that's billed as entertainment.  What if the problem in our era has been that the high and low and the art and the pop have been balkanized in ways that may not have been the case in earlier eras?  Some of us lean toward that position. 

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