No one has enough time to do anything these days. Early 21st century life is a world of information overload. Channel surfing has become an aesthetic onto itself. An oft-cited criticism of classical music is that symphonies, operas, etc. are just too long. Many classical radio stations these days even play single movements from pieces rather than entire works in response to a society-wide attention deficit disorder.
But, since music is a time-based art, it needs time to get its message across—or does it? How short can a composition get? While three minutes is the accepted norm for pop songs, the Ramones made a career out of 2 minute songs and other bands, such as The Residents and the aptly-named Minutemen, polished off even shorter tracks that last a minute or less. The title track off Sly and the Family Stone‘s landmark 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On cheekily has a running time of 0’00″—perhaps funk’s response to John Cage‘s silent 4’33” which by comparison feels like an eternity.
In the over-argued high art vs. low art debate, so-called serious music has prided itself on being more substantive and developmental than the sound-byte hooks of hit singles. Anton Webern‘s rigorous application of the twelve-tone method was a stepping-stone for post-war serialists both here and abroad, but few composers at the time carried on his equally bold path of severe brevity. Sure, miniatures for various instruments have existed for centuries. They make great encore pieces and, if they’re fast, they’re a great way for a player to show off. (Every pianist wants to play Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” faster than its original tempo.)
The art provocateurs of the Fluxus movement also created a great number of very short musical compositions in the 1960s. Before La Monte Young spent five hours at the piano exploring the possibilities of prime ratio harmonics in just intonation, he created a piece of music where the performer is simply instructed to strike a perfect fifth at the piano. Then there’s “One Note Once” by Phillip Corner whose title says it all. Yoko Ono created a piece for orchestra which consisted merely of asking all the members of an orchestra to walk to a wall and bang their heads on it. And Al Hansen, grandfather of rock star Beck, was the mastermind behind Yoko Ono Piano Drop, in which a piano is dropped from a building making one deafeningly loud crashing sound (a feat later repeated by composer Steve MacLean in 1993 which clocks in at 4 seconds on the Pogus CD, Flies in the Face of Logic). But all of these compositions are conceptual in nature and their brief execution time seems more a function of the activity than a specific desire to be brief.
This Is A Short Piece!
One of my fellow composers wanted to program some of my music. I had met her in the summer of 1966 when I made I of IV and other pieces of electronic music. These pieces were usually about 30 minutes—as long as the reel of tape. She would call me on the phone after that and say that she wanted to program my music—”Haven’t you got a short piece?” Finally somewhat annoyed I responded with This is a Short Piece.
The performer or group comes out onto the stage and takes a performance position.
The performer(s) announces: “This is a short piece,” then, as the lights go out and back on makes the shortest sound possible (e.g. stamp foot or shout).
I performed this piece at UCSD around 1970 one afternoon. I stamped my foot. Later, I was visiting a friend. I reached for a corn chip and took a bite. I discovered that a lower molar was not happy and I couldn’t bite or chew. I went to the dentist the next day and was told that I had a football player’s injury. The reaction force from the foot stamp had mobilized the tooth (a wave equal and opposite to the foot hitting the floor reflected back to my clenched jaw.
Two years later the molar had to be removed. After another two years the upper molar was removed. Problems have continued so This is a Short Piece is the longest piece that I ever wrote.
My friend, Annea Lockwood, tried the piece and bit her tongue.
So, the piece is available for performance but it is dangerous!
It seems that it has only been in the very recent past, with our “less is more” mindset, that brevity has really become an aesthetic goal in and of itself. Today, there are tons of composers creating extremely short pieces in a variety of media and for a variety of reasons.
In the late 1980s, John Zorn put together a group called Naked City that blurred the lines between jazz, hardcore punk, reggae, country and just about everything else, navigating through musical styles the way a bored suburbanite might click a remote. Zorn’s efforts to tap into our consumer-abetted habits culminated with Naked City’s 1989 release Torture Garden, a collection of 42 “hardcore miniatures.” Each track ended almost as soon as it began, creating an extremely unsettling mood that felt like the distillation of all music history into a single sonic pellet.
Zorn compatriot Elliot Sharp played around with even shorter durations than Naked City in the recordings of his band I/S/M, which included blasts of sound excerpts as short as three seconds which he later blended into a collage composition titled “Sample/Hold.” Sharp refined this strategy with the first State of the Union in 1982, a companion record to an issue of Zone magazine, edited by Peter Cherches. Sharp asked 34 artists to contribute pieces with a maximum duration of 60 seconds, which he then sequenced into a composition. The artists’ version of the President’s annual State of the Union speech, the series had three subsequent installments in 1991, 1996, and 2001. Each includes more composers than the previous edition with the last edition containing compositions from more than 170 composers on 3 compact discs. For Sharp, the idea that listeners would not necessarily know where one composer’s work ended and another began was intriguing: “With the advent of the CD (and being of the post-Cage generation), I was not at all disappointed but felt joy and liberation at the new juxtapositions possible with random shuffle. I put the legend ‘play on random shuffle’ on the compact disc.”
A similar approach inspired The Frog Peak Collaborations Project in 1998. Initiated by Larry Polansky, all the pieces were created as variations on a single sound file of Chris Mann reading a text on collaboration, written especially for the project. The sound file was distributed freely over the Internet. The resulting compositions from composers all around the world were mailed to Frog Peak, and then compiled and released as a double compact disc of 121 pieces by 61 composers. A CD released on Ohm/Avatar five years earlier, Ding Dong Deluxe, collects 99 contemporary Canadian compositions—the longest a staggering 50 seconds (longer by half than the second opus of 33 seconds) and the shortest (Jocelyn Robert’s Pianock #2) a mere 6 seconds.
In 1995, the Paris-based American pianist Guy Livingston put out a call for solo piano scores of 60 seconds in duration. His goal was to assemble 60 compositions that he would play together in a concert devoted exclusively to new piano miniatures. To date, Livingston has received nearly 200 such pieces and built up a new body of solo piano repertoire from which he draws concert programs that have received rave reviews around the world. His Wergo CD, Don’t Panic, showcases 60 of these pieces by composers based in 18 countries and ranging in style from neo-classicism to serialism to post-modernist performance art.
In 2003, Vox Novus solicited recorded compositions lasting less than a minute and received over 190 works from more than 90 composers varying in style, aesthetic, technique, and length (the shortest being 8 seconds). Sixty of the recordings were presented together in an hour-long multi-media event called The 60×60 Project. (A call for works has gone out for a second 60×60 event later in 2004 and a compact disc is to be released soon on Capstone Records.) [Ed. Note: Robert Voisey is the founder of Vox Novus and the initiator of The 60×60 Project.]
So, is societal influence, economic practicalities, or artistic motivation ultimately behind this sudden proliferation of short compositions or are these projects just aberrations? Opinions vary as much as the compositions themselves.
Certainly film, radio, television, recording equipment, computers, and the Internet have each eroded traditional performance constraints to the point that people can now hear any music at any time they want and can listen to as much or as little as they want. Noah Creshevsky regrets the negativity of phrases like ‘short attention span’ and ‘information overload’ claiming that we could just as easily celebrate these conditions with phrases like ‘accelerated comprehension span’ and ‘information wonderland.’ “Short attention spans are deficits,” admits Crechevsky, “but the ability to take in a great deal of information in a short time is a probable asset.”
Capitalist economics dominate the nations and cultures of the Western world, including the entertainment industry. In order to adapt and survive, perhaps composers and musicians are learning to get the biggest return on their creative efforts. Capitalizing on new inventions, using advertising techniques that have proven themselves over the last 50 years of commercialism, musicians are broadcasting attractive bits to hook their listeners, hoping their material stands out from among the many competitors.
If you’re in the business of promoting new music composers, then there’s also something of a cost/benefit reality at work here: If a typical concert of contemporary music presents ten-minute compositions by eight different composers, a concert of compositions lasting a minute or less could give exposure to many, many more, a concept that has the opportunity to both maximize an attending audience (since each composer has a potential fan base) and at the same time not strain the listening ears of an audience not receptive to a particular composer’s style. If you’re bored or annoyed by something, at least it will be over in a minute and maybe you’ll like the next piece.
But do such severe time constraints lead to a different compositional approach? Not necessarily, says Richard Brooks who has composed three pieces for Guy Livingston— “For me the process of writing a short piece isn’t much different than a long one.”
Creshevsky, who created a composition for the 60×60 project, was less fixated on the time constraints than the format the music was eventually to be presented in. He explains, “What excited me about 60×60 was not merely the opportunity to compose a one-minute piece, in fact, I do not think that was the principal source of my interest. What seemed especially wonderful was the format: 60 one-minute pieces, played in conjunction with a clock.” As soon as the second hand hit twelve, the audience would know that a new piece of music was beginning.
However, for other composers such as Nathaniel Reichman, who has perhaps taken this idea to its furthest extreme yet by creating a series of works each lasting only 2 seconds, the time constraint became an aesthetic end unto itself. As Reichman tells it, “I had just finished writing nineteen two-second pieces of music for a television advertising campaign, and initially I wrote off the effort as being one of many silly things composers do when working commercially. However, divorced from the context of commerce, the challenge of creating something distinctive and complete inside of a seemingly impossible time constraint became fascinating to me.”
Perhaps shorter compositions are a way for a composers to express themselves in a more concise way. Dan Wharburton says that he likes “to work within a pre-determined time frame, saying in advance ‘this piece will last so and so minutes’.” It is also a different approach to interacting with an audience. According to Gene Pritsker, “the more concise something is the deeper the point comes across, just because the listeners have to deduce more for themselves.”
While Steve Reich once described his early phase shifting pieces as putting a microscope to sound, creating extremely brief compositions is an even more direct metaphor for the microscopic. Just as the giant symphonies of the past might evoke mountains or landscapes, these mini-miniatures conjure up more basic granular structures. Vermont-based composer Dennis Bathory-Kitsz posits that “before long we may look forward to the successful three-way marriage of icon, composition, and grain.” For Bathory-Kitsz, it’s the next step in our musical evolution:
In abstract and especially composer-centric music from Bach’s variations onward, the malleable motivic figure offered an opportunity for show, consideration, and even genius. Beethoven’s ‘three G’s and an E-flat’ as Bernstein liked to call them, hardly made up a motive at all—just a raw, sonic source shape. What’s interesting about the Beethoven figure is that it is a rare classical example of sonic iconography. Latter-day icons include the sounds that accompany, say, the startup of Windows or Mac, or the ‘Intel Inside’ audio logo, the AT&T identification, and Rush Limbaugh’s two-note commercial break ID… Are any of these granules or modules or motives in fact compositions? In thinking of a musical composition, we lean toward the recognizably complete. Yet sonic icons are complete—there is no more after they’ve been heard.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect to music of extremely short durations is that it can exist in so many other contexts beyond concerts and recordings. From video games to cell phone rings to telephone hold music to sounds that accompany computer programs (Brian Eno created the music you hear when Windows boots up making him arguably the most listened to composer of our time). Music will then have the power to add new contexts to every day activities in our lives. In Jason Freeman‘s composition Shakespeare Cuisinart, callers are asked to say their favorite short quotation from a Shakespeare play or poem into an answering machine and moments later, they hear a short piece of music generated from slicing, dicing, and layering their voices. Software programs such as GarageBand and Web sites like OpSound now allow anyone to create their own sonic miniatures which they can share with anyone online, perhaps even embedding a “sonic signature” into an email. If only we had some time to listen!