Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The case for shorter pieces

On Friday, I had the privilege of sitting in on a presentation of 60x60, a project created by Robert Voisey that features 60 electroacoustic compositions by 60 different composers, each lasting a minute or less, played continuously for one hour. Having begun the project in 2003, Voisey has curated several collections, many of which feature a theme of some kind (such as works that utilize a tuning system other than equal-temperament, or works by female composers). The concept is simple and effectively gives a cross section of contemporary art music being produced at this time. Longy's own Jeremy Van Buskirk contributed to this most recent compilation, whose theme is composers who have given public presentations of 60x60--a sort of tongue-in-cheek self-fulfilling goal.

As artists working in the medium of sound, our pieces necessarily contain duration, something that is not beholden to the visual arts. Thus, public presentations of aural works require that the audience listen for a fixed amount of time--no more, and no less--in order to fully experience the work. Unlike the visual arts, whose public presentations (such as in museum galleries) do not require uninterrupted silent appraisal, music happens over a fixed duration and cannot be relived at a glance. It's as Cook talks about in the "Imaginary Object" chapter of his book: when we take music out of duration and attempt to talk or write about it, we distance it from the reality of its visceral power and limited domain. And besides, modern concert hall etiquette dictates that the audience stay for the entirety of the performance, which can be uncomfortably long if the work isn't appealing.

However, 60x60 ensures that no individual piece of music lasts too long--you'd be hard pressed to find someone who couldn't sit through one minute of music that didn't appeal to them. Some might find the experience of shifting between pieces every minute jarring--a musical analog for changing channels on a TV, but in my experience, I was constantly engaged. Perhaps a trend towards shorter works is on the horizon. I have a feeling that a large part of the failure of classical music to appeal to a wide audience is the fact that when people think of that type of music, they think of hour-long symphonies and other large-scale forms, during which they must be seated and silent. This is certainly an unappetizing picture to paint, but perhaps with the proliferation of 60x60 compilations (which have also incorporated dance and visual art forms), a future of larger audiences for shorter works is on the horizon.

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