There have been so many comments on these and other pages about how our music would be more “fill in the blank” if only we were more like the art world, or what’s on the bestseller list this week, or TV, etc. Admittedly, I’ve been one of the ones commenting. Every time I go to a crowded art show, for weeks I’ll be on automatic pilot with: “They lined up around the block for Jackson Pollock; why don’t they line up the block for Roger Sessions,” or something of that sort.
The same thing was about to happen to me again last weekend when I attended MoMA’s Brice Marden retrospective, which was still packed with people after being on display for several months. To my thinking, Marden, born 1938, shares a lot of aesthetic common ground with composers as diverse as David Borden, Gloria Coates, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Charles Wuorinen—all of whom were also born in 1938 and whose works display a reasoned approach to abstractly permuting patterns through physical gestures. Yet, not to cast aspersions on any of the music these folks write (which I treasure), I doubt there’d be lines around the block to attend a concert assembling any of their lives’ work, which is ostensibly what the Marden show was.
That’s because such a concert would last days, and even a typical concert of roughly two hours is sadly beyond the attention span of most people nowadays. Music is just, well, too long. It takes too much time. And that time has to be focused and continuous. You can walk by a hundred paintings as fast as the crowds allow you to. You can read a book anywhere you want, put it down whenever you want, and pick it up again without losing the thread. (Well, most books—at least the ones that get on bestseller lists.) Admittedly, watching TV also requires time—everyone knows how much time it wastes, but very few people who watch TV are actually focused on it completely. If they were, they’d probably be able to quit the habit more easily.
Imagine how much time we could save, and how many more people you could attract to new music, if we could completely eliminate the time element in music. Isolate single events and just sustain them: chords, timbres, etc. Allow people to experience them for as long or as short as they care to, as art viewers do with paintings and sculptures. Well, there already are folks like La Monte Young and Max Neuhaus and generations of sound installation artists inspired by them who create work that does just that.
But music is ultimately about time. Even sound installation pieces attain their clarity from the cumulative effect of experiencing their sonic content in real time. But, of course, that’s true for works of visual art as well. So, maybe instead what we need to do is be better facilitators at helping cure our society of its collective attention deficit disorder by proving that there can be great rewards from spending more time on focused perception.