The Morning After
By Frank J. Oteri
What qualities in a performance make it seem faster or slower than its actual duration?
I’m still on a total high from my last week in Amsterdam, not because of the ubiquitous “coffee shops” which I did not frequent, but from the 2010 Gaudeamus Muziekweek which Ruby Fulton has already so eloquently described on these pages. Her reports were so thorough that there’s really no need for me to rethread here, but I did have an experience there (actually several) that I nevertheless wanted to write something about. It’s an experience that I’ve had many times before in many different places, so it’s not unique to Gaudemus or Amsterdam, but since it just happened again there it’s a way to shine one more light on that tremendous week of international contemporary music.
A few weeks ago I got fixated on the amount of time it takes to compose music and the number of hearings it takes to “get” a piece of music, which also requires a considerable amount of time. There were lots of interesting comments in response to this. But I, as well as all of the commentors, failed to mention a fascinating corollary to this whole question of the time factor in music: While music takes place in real time and therefore must be perceived that way, the process of listening to music can actually blur one’s perception of time. Sometimes a piece that lasts 10 minutes sounds like it went by in only 5, other times a ten-minute piece can feel like a half-hour.
This is exactly what I experienced at Gaudeamus last week. Some pieces raced by, a handful did not. But what made it all the more noticeable is that the programs for Gaudeamus stated the durations for most of the pieces being performed, therefore automatically giving listeners a sense of just how long the pieces would last. But because of the strange blurring that music does to the perception of time, knowing how long a piece was supposed to last was actually frequently disconcerting. I suppose one could look at one’s watch during a performance to keep track of the time, but that seems somehow rude. I’ve occasionally looked at my watch during a performance over the years, usually not from boredom but in order to know how long a section of a piece lasted, but I try not to.
However, I think all of this raises some questions that are worth pondering here. Should concert programs include information about duration? Does this help or hinder perception? What qualities in a performance make it seem faster or slower than its actual duration? Do slow pieces sound longer than they are and fast pieces faster? Or is this somehow a function of harmonic rhythm? I personally don’t find this to always be the case. The first hour of a three-hour La Monte Young Theatre of Eternal Music Big Band performance I heard in New York many years ago felt interminable whereas the last hour raced by. That piece was a single held chord.