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In this series titled "Composer Dilemmas," I would like to relfect on issues in the process of composition. How deterministic will this piece be, performance-wise? Once 'finished,' does it remain so? How will the scale of the composition, or the forces for which it calls, affect the final experience? These issues, though less discussed in music courses, are much more fundamental than questions such as "should I write a tonal or atonal piece?"


Duration is a very important consideration in the time-based arts of music, dance, theater, and film. Although the pacing of a work can affect the perceived length, the pure duration still imbues the piece with some meaning. Wagner's operas would not have the same weight if they were reduced to one hour, and songs by the Sex Pistols would not have the same immediacy if they became 10-minute prog-rock epics. This aspect of music has always intrigued me - even when I was growing up I would always look at the back of the album to see the length of the song. I guess I wanted to know what I was in for - 0:53 of Wild Honey Pie or 8:22 of Revolution 9...

Composers of concert music have practicalities to consider, and these practicalities have evolved into somewhat standard durations for pieces. If commissioned to write an orchestral work, this is almost always an 8-10 minute concert opener. Festivals of contemporary music often state that they will not program works over 15 or 20 minutes. At the same time, shorter works (say 3-4 minutes) are often considered 'not substantial enough.' In acoustic music, this makes a little sense - why assemble a chamber orchestra for one 2-minute piece when you could make it worth the players' time by programming one or two longer pieces? So in many ways the standard length for concert works has become 10 minutes.

A generation (or two) ago, the standard was 20 minutes. Morton Feldman once wrote:

My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy - just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece - it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they're like evolving things. (LINK)

Feldman went on to write long pieces, sometimes lasting several hours. It is difficult for composers to mount performances of that length, but obviously it can happen on occasion. Sometimes Feldman's works, or Satie's Vexations, are performed almost for the sheer novelty of a multi-hour performance. They do require a different mindset for the audience, but it is surely helpful to know that the piece will be several hours, rather than walking into a concert with no clue whether these pieces will be about 5 minutes each, or 25 minutes each. Perhaps concert programs should start printing the approximate length of the works presented.

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