Oberlin Blogs

The nature of long music

December 7, 2009

Chris Gollmar ’10

I’m not one of those folks who has some sort of otherworldly emotional or psychic connection to music. You won’t see me bobbing and swaying in my seat at an orchestra concert. I don’t listen to works from the 19th century and empathize with the tortured soul of the Romantic composer. And I certainly don’t hear whole compositions in my head and madly transcribe them a la Mozart.

There is something about especially long pieces of music, however, that gets to me. I should probably clarify what exactly I mean by long. By long I do not mean 5 minutes or 7 minutes or even 15 minutes. Sure, by today’s radio-edit standards that’s pretty damn long, but I’m talking about something a bit more extensive. I mean about an hour or more. I think your music listening experience changes quite a bit when you listen to something for such an extended time. You have to make a commitment to yourself (and to the music) to stay put and to stay awake, which does require a bit of self-control on your part, but it is duly rewarded. Long music plays with your perception of time in a way that short music cannot, and it is very effective at transporting you to another world entirely.

Fortunately, my five years at Oberlin have been punctuated with opportunities to hear various exquisite works of long music. I thought I might share a few.

Last weekend: Collegium Musicum

Since my first semester at Oberlin, I have sung in the Collegium Musicum, a choir devoted to performing polyphonic works from the 15th and 16th centuries.

There is something quite special about this music. Though it requires great concentration to perform, its undulating rhythms and floating harmonies seem to lull the audience to sleep (or something like it). Collegium concerts are always just over an hour long and, perhaps due to the usual inclusion of an entire Mass, typically feature a lot of repeated musical ideas and phrases. The result is something like a very, very pleasant “Renaissance soup.” (That’s maybe not the most flattering description. It’s more like a cloud than soup.)

November this year: John Luther Adams

I left the November 13 Contemporary Music Ensemble concert in a state of such deep relaxation that I felt like I had slept for 12 hours and just woken up perfectly well rested. Alas, I didn’t actually get anywhere near that much sleep. Somehow, though, the concert rejuvenated me.

So what was it about the concert that got to me?

It couldn’t hurt to tell you a bit about the concert program. Piece 1: Morton Feldman’s The Turfan Fragments, a 25-minute-long piece for mixed chamber orchestra. Intermission. Piece 2: for Lou Harrison, a string orchestra piece by John Luther Adams.

Feldman and Luther Adams are strange fellows. The work of both composers, at least in their later styles, is rather minimalist, favoring intricately woven repetitive gestures. Whereas Feldman tends to prefer a sparse, delicate texture, Luther Adams’s music is often quite lush. It was the latter that really got to me during the CME concert.

For Lou Harrison is unbelievably lush, overflowing with warm, flowering harmonies. For over an hour, I listened to layer upon layer of triads as they came in and out of focus. The sound was constant, the only immediately noticeable vestiges of form coming from the swelling dynamics of the piece.

After about 20 minutes spent futilely trying to listen to every detail of the piece, I decided to simply let the music take over. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and just went along with the ride. I was almost sad when it was over. In fact, the piece seemed to speed up as it continued. Really, I was only growing more accustomed to its presence.

My first year: Vexations

My first year (or maybe it was my second year), I was lucky enough to help perform a very long piece of music indeed: Erik Satie’s Vexations, a four-line piece for solo piano with the simple instruction “play 840 times.” The music itself lacks any sort of tonic or direction, and there is no discernible moment when one repetition ends and the next begins. When it’s all said and done, it takes approximately 12 to 18 hours to perform.

We performed Vexations by tag-team. I signed up for one 20-minute period to play the piece, after which another pianist would pick up where I left off. I wasn’t daring enough to stay the entire time—though there was one fellow composition major who did. Instead, I arrived about an hour before my scheduled time and listened to the piece. I also stayed for a while afterward to listen some more.

Vexations in some ways was quite similar in my experience to for Lou Harrison in that I found it necessary to simply go along for the ride. After hearing the music for some time, you begin to “inhabit” it in a certain way, and it plays with your experience of time. I started to hear the music vertically rather than horizontally, if that makes any sense. It was as if I could hear the whole piece all at once, laid out in front of me, rather than taking it in note by note. Vexations was a very important experience for me and taught me quite a bit about how musical time is experienced.

My own music

I haven’t yet ventured to write any long music myself, but I’d like to. One of the challenges of being a composition student is that once you finish up with one idea, you have to move onto the next quite quickly. It’s often better to compose a number of shorter pieces than to spend your time writing one long piece. I can’t really argue that that’s a bad thing, though—it gets you to explore a lot of different ideas. Still, I’d like to write my own piece of long music someday.

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