Philip Clark explores 'Western music's hidden militant tendency'
Why isn’t the Minute Waltz a minute long? Why didn’t Tchaikovsky design his 1812 Overture to last precisely eighteen minutes and twelve seconds? How long is a piece of music? How does a composer know how long that new piece ‘ought’ to be? How do composers write 10-minute or half-hour commissions to order? Does a 10-minute piece need more or less material than music lasting five minutes? Or an hour? Structure. Scale. Duration. Pacing. After melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre, welcome to the final compositional frontier.
How long is this essay? Ninety-two words so far. How long does it need to be? My instinct says another 2000 words ought to do it, but how should those words be structured? As a single gradual reveal? Or as a sequence of interlinked scenes, miniature vignettes which will punch above their weight inside some grander narrative? Should the form of this essay be through-written, teleological and symphonic? Or modular, episodic and improvisational?
Or is that rhetorical question ‘how long is a piece of music?’ bigger than any of this? Might anything else just be padding and waffle? Did Gertrude Stein ever pen anything more profound than ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’?
Throughout the development of Western music a broad, discernable evolutionary trajectory is clear. The assumption is that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is bigger and more complex than Monteverdi’s Orfeo because in the mid-19th century composers were working with an augmented harmonic palette; Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann had collectively yanked open a world of harmonic possibility and that freshly minted terrain required breathing space for harmonic ambiguities to work themselves out. Of course the scope and ambition of Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra dwarfs Schubert’s Fifth Symphony because Carter was writing a 130-something years after Schubert! A modernist skyscraper verses a thatched cottage. A freshly cast, piece-specific structure verses the standard four-movement symphonic archetype. But is the argument really that straightforward? Might the compressed interweaving of straw in a thatched cottage roof be, on its own terms, as ornate and involved as the Chrysler Building?
The monumentalism of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata compared to a streamlined Bach French Suite. The structural muscle and magnitude of Bruckner’s Eighth measured against Haydn’s 104th Symphony. The clean-cut diatonicism of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto compared to the internal harmonic wrestle of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, the whole Western music shebang hitting a critical mass and tipping point around the end of the 19th century: Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. But some composers have stood in opposition to this inexorable slide towards the epic, the all-life-is-here canvas. The aesthetics of miniaturism – as practised by miniaturists – is Western music’s hidden militant tendency, at its most pointed a critique that deconstructs music from the inside and makes us listen all over again.
But what is the distinction between a bona fide miniature and a piece that is merely short? 'A rose is a rose', if that’s what Stein had written, would have been classified as a short sentence, but 'a rose is a rose is a rose' exhibits true miniaturist leanings.
'I wandered lonely as a cloud' requires an answering phrase. 'That floats on high o’er vales and hills/When all at once I saw a crowd' provides that answer and sets the narrative ball rolling. The form of Wordsworth’s poem truly opens up like a daffodil. But 'a rose is a rose is a rose' is a closed, self-referential form, a canny textural play on text, the last three words making you reflect on the first five, those last three words tipping your brain into a canny tailspin as you begin to grapple with philosophical implications far more profound than a sentence which, at face value, loops three words, two of which happen to be 'is' and 'a'. Stein’s sentence is the very definition of miniaturist thinking, and it pleased her greatly. First surfacing as 'Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose' in her 1913 poem Sacred Emily, an extended structure of similarly free-standing lines, the idea of roses being roses would become a recurring motif in her work.
In an article written for the June 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books ('Happy Birthday, Frédéric Chopin!'), the pianist and writer Charles Rosen, who died at the end of last year, argued that 'the orthodox view of Chopin as a miniaturist is now pretty much obsolete, exploded, discredited.' Not just obsolete, but 'exploded' and 'discredited' note. Rosen famously took no prisoners when arguing his corner and he makes such a powerful case for Chopin as a master of long-form composition you wonder how anyone could ever have considered him to be a miniaturist. 'Chopin was the only composer of his generation,' Rosen writes, 'who never wrote a long piece that was ineffective.' Schumann, Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz all suffered their longueurs, he continues, but the 'elegance, distinction and efficacy of Chopin’s large forms are almost unique for the time in their success.'
Rosen’s argument – which unwittingly, or not, gives the impression that 'miniaturist' might be a derogatory term – boils down to the idea that there’s a mismatch between Chopin’s reputation as a miniaturist and the nature and temperament of his musical material; his concentration 'on the genres of salon music considered trivial – nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes – placed him among the miniaturists' but 'few pianists have had any difficulty appreciating the mastery of its eccentric form, breaking most of the classical rules with panache, unifying all its different textures into a narrative whole.' Chopin’s pieces might have often been short in duration, but his structures continuously opened themselves up, moving the narrative along.
No, duration is pretty much useless as a sole measuring stick of the actual 'length' of a work, as any self-respecting miniaturist will tell you. How long is John Cage’s so-called 'silent' piece 4'33''? The clue, you might think, is in the title, but the piece can last longer in performance, assuming that Cage’s stated proportions are respected. But its implications resonate long after the curtain falls; like Stein’s rose, Cage unlocks a potent idea enough to keep most people guessing for life. Why isn’t the Minute Waltz a minute long? Because Chopin, like Cage, builds structures designed to allow material to spill over the bar lines and structural edges. Rosen hears pages that are 'facile and even trashy' in Liszt, structural muscle sustaining ideas way beyond their natural melodic cell-by-date. But Chopin has always struck me as one of music’s great editors. Passages of transition notable by their absence; a lean, mean, highly disciplined, composition machine.
Born six years after Chopin died in 1849, the Russian composer Anatol Liadov is most regularly cited as the sad loser who bungled the opportunity to compose The Firebird, failing to deliver the goods on time and leaving Diaghilev with a headache and little choice but to approach a young composer with promise called Igor Stravinsky. Edvard Grieg and Gabriel Fauré, both contemporaries of Liadov, with Liadov, are ordinarily referenced as the miniaturists who matter: but how does their music stack up in this spectrum between short pieces and true miniatures? Fauré’s roots in Brahms and his predisposition for open-ended forms puts him squarely in the category of a short piece composer. Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are the essence of the miniaturist mindset: little arching constructs viewing the world from a window with no digressions or unnecessary development.
Even when Grieg composed on a larger scale, the Piano Concerto being a prime example, he thought like a miniaturist, curtailing, rebooting, giving out a piece in installments, the directional architecture of a Beethoven or Brahms seemingly of little interest. Liadov’s pieces are perfectly constructed sonic postcards with an intensity of miniature detail: his orchestral piece The Enchanted Lake has a clock duration of only 6 minutes, but compresses a whole timeless experience inside that short frame. Listeners drift between the actual scale of the music and the implied vastness of an imagined, enchanted soundscape.
And now for something completely, psychedelically, different. Watch this short (or is it?) embed, and I’ll see you on the other side.
Erik Satie’s Vexations marks the moment when the miniature went political, when a composer deliberately set out to mess with his audience’s mind armed only with harmony and proportional scale.
Small paragraphs, big idea.
One sheet of manuscript paper, one motif, one instruction:
'To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.'
One motif to be repeated 840 times; a precursor, then, of La Monte Young, Steve Reich and Philip Glass?
No, because Satie deliberately turns faux-harmonic function against itself.
An 18-note theme, deeply chromatic already, reharmonised with chromatic harmony slippery and disorientating enough to give you vertigo.
Satie’s message? You can repeat this motif all you like, but you’ll never know for certain where you are, a message reinforced by wantonly freakish, counterintuitive note-spelling designed to keep pianists on their toes –
E flat and B double flat appearing two beats later as D sharp and A natural; a notational riddle that results in the same sound.
And now, bearing all that in mind, here’s a performance of Satie’s miniature that stretches for nine hours.
Rather Vexations would have marked the moment when miniatures became political, when a composer deliberately set out to mess with minds, had Satie published it during his lifetime. Written, remarkably, in 1893, it was John Cage – alongside a splendidly diverse miscellany of musicians from David Tudor to Joshua Rifkin to The Velvet Underground’s John Cale – even the reviewer sent by the New York Times was roped into playing – who mounted the first performance in 1963 and Satie provoked and stimulated from beyond the grave. I like that in the first video embedded above time-lapse footage of a complete 19-hour performance is overlaid against the soundtrack of one repeat of Satie’s motif; this simultaneous presentation of scale that is concurrently tinier and bigger than our capacity to compute it is what miniaturists do best.
Satie’s piece is not concerned with any looming endgame; it’s about the continuous present. The Wagnerian concept of unendliche melodie (‘never-ending melody’) was predicated around seemingly infinite variations of harmony supporting a boundless melodic flow, Wagner using music to tell a narrative where chords and melodic leitmotifs were prescribed extra-musical significance. Vexations turns those beliefs on their head. Satie detested the scale and the vainglorious grandeur of Wagner’s operas and here was his rebuke. And little wonder Vexations caught on in New York City during the 1960s, in a milieu where Cage and Morton Feldman, both with their oblique relationship to Western harmony, were remodelling music from the inside.
Feldman would describe his five-hour trio for flutes, piano and percussion For Philip Guston as a 'short five hour piece' and in the context of Vexations this apparent oxymoron begins to add up. 'My music is like Webern, but longer,' Feldman also said, and a piece like his String Quartet No 2 (clocking in at around six hours) is like a slow, premeditated walk through the tiny structures of Webern’s Opus 21 Symphony or his Opus 28 String Quartet, details telescoped, harmonic ambiguities ruminated upon, the sonic vista stood back from and admired. The longer the piece, Feldman mused, the less material you need.
Why isn’t the Minute Waltz a minute long? Now you know. Why didn’t Tchaikovsky design his 1812 Overture to last precisely 18 minutes and 12 seconds? I wish that he had. How long is a piece of music? Well, its internal dimensions might be longer or shorter than its actual duration. How does a composer know how long their new piece 'ought' to be? How do composers write 10-minute or half-hour commissions to order? By ignoring those constraints and writing the music they want to write.
And the biggest question of all – does a 10-minute piece need more or less material than music lasting five minutes or an hour? Less is surely best. The less material, the more a composer must work to find a world of possibilities within it, resisting the temptation towards big gestures without context, or pushing those obvious emotional buttons. And that’s why miniaturism is such a big idea.