Musings on long pieces

I tend to like not overwhelmingly programmatic music. Excepting opera of course, which is about as programmatic as you can get. By “programmatic,” I mean stuff where the music is supposed to tell a story, like “Erlkoenig” or something. The typical example of it is something like “Peter and the Wolf,” where you’re supposed to lean forward and say, “Oh the oboe is the duck!” or even “The Four Seasons” where the dripping icicles are the pizzicato and the fierce strings are a summer storm. I don’t mind it, but I’m not entirely crazy about writing it. If I do slip bits in, it’s usually pretty hazy and not that organized. For example, the middle part of Thunder and Stars where it goes into Gb got bombastic because I had just watched Curiosity land on Mars. I didn’t write it about or because of the rover, though. I was just in a really good mood when I got to that part of the music. Moon of Memory is a bit sparkly because of a very distinct and distorted memory I had as a kid of an offshore moonrise, but I didn’t write about that family vacation, just that one disembodied memory.

So it’s not like either piece tells a definite story. I very often will just write and let my ear tell me where I want to go next, with occasional glances at the map of music theory. But lately, I’ve been getting a bit antsy to write something longer, something approaching ten or fifteen pages where I have to break the piece up into multiple sections, revisit themes, and let myself noodle around. One of the things I know I tend to do is just set up themes and knock through them one by one without more than a few measures of transitional glue to move from one theme to the other. I imagine that’s fairly standard for new composers. Eight bars, then eight more, then two measures of “let’s see what’s around this corner,” and then oh, look! another eight bars and another eight bars!

I’m halfway between admiration and impatience with the willingness of the good composers to just take their damned time and spin their wheels in a circle for a bit, letting the audience sit and wait until they’re good and ready to move on. Granted, sometimes it gets irritating. I will never lose the suspicion that these four-movement-forty-five-minute epic symphonies of the late Romantic period are just goddamned egotistical musical masturbation. Sure, some of the bits are nice, but a lot of times, it’s just some guy just banging on and on and on and on, and Jesus Christ, aren’t you done yet? Yes, you’re very good. We know. Holy shit, wrap it up already. My ass is asleep.

For an almost-fifty year old, I sound like the classical world’s worst nightmare of the brat youth with the short attention span. But let’s face it, a four-hour movie can be paused and come back to. A 800-page book can be closed and resumed later. A piece of music generally has to be apprehended in one go unless you pause between movements, and when one movement is long enough to make your back ache, that’s going a bit far. There’s a very fine line between spinning an epic, and being that guy with the fat ego at the party who won’t shut up because he’s convinced everyone must be hanging on his every word.

Now, like Walt Whitman, I contradict myself or appear to.

I do still admire these composers’ confidence that they will say what they want to say, take as long as they want to say it, and the audience can damned well sit there and listen. At least I admire it when it’s not taken to extremes. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m reeling out 33-page monsters — at least not without distinct stopping points where a listener can go get a cup of coffee, hit the john, or get up and have a stretch. But I do want to let myself take some damned time over my ideas and not rush to the next theme because I’m afraid I might drop dead before I get to it.

Which means that I need some unifying idea. I’ve been mulling the planets — and the real planets, not Holst’s versions of the planets, which is very nice but not about the planets so much as the gods they were named after. Venus is not the bringer of love, it’s a seething hellpit hot enough to melt lead. Mars is not a war planet; it’s a serene, dusty place whose salad days are long finished, the surface of which looks like a crime scene photo. Jupiter is stately and mysterious but active and swirled with colors like a close-up of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It’s not the King of the Gods. And what about comets? Asteroids? The Oort cloud? The Kuiper belt? The heliopause?

Might be fun.