I was so glad this weekend to be at Lincoln Center, seeing a crowded lobby and excited, young crowd for New York City Opera’s Monodramas triple bill of Zorn, Schoenberg, and Feldman. It could – but in this case, won’t – go without saying that an establishment venue taking a risk on programming like this is a good sign for New York’s cultural life. For me, the high point of the night was Morton Feldman’s Neither, which despite clocking in at over an hour of very static music, kept me continuously rapt. I wrote recently about my experience of Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett, which I found frustrating at times. With this opera, for which Beckett was librettist, I felt completely engrossed. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Neither has what could be called melodies, or at least melodic fragments, whereas For Samuel Beckett consists almost entirely of Feldman’s luxurious harmonic clouds. Something about the obsessive and repetitive nature of these melodies – especially when delivered by the voice – powerfully implies a kind of desperation, a lost and hopeless striving that connects vividly with Beckett’s text about the “impenetrable self”. See Drew Baker’s blog for an insightful review of the rest of the show.
In the past few weeks I’ve attended several concerts with pieces of relatively extreme duration, and it got me thinking – is there a line between something being boring and meditative, or is it all perspective? I’m reminded of a story by Cage about playing a record of a Buddhist service for Henry Cowell’s Oriental music class, which had very different reactions to the same material. After 15 minutes of the same loud percussive sound with no perceptible variation, one woman screamed “Take it off, I can’t bear it any longer!”. He did so, and another man in the class said “Why’d you take it off? I was just getting interested.”
I sympathize with both of the characters in this story, though I suppose they function as rhetorical foils. In something either repetitive or very sparse that goes on for more than a half hour, I usually find my mind beginning to race around, thinking of what I could be doing rather than continuing to hear the same thing over and over. But if it’s a good piece, I’m usually converted to the second man’s camp by something. Maybe it’s a point of structural articulation that illuminates a proportion in the form that wasn’t perceptible until a large section was defined by a slight change.
Can something in fact be both boring and meditative? Those of you who compose and perform extremely long, repetitive, or sparse music – do you consider the boredom of your audience a desirable effect, or at least a part of the experience? Even at the recent performance of Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett – which I found incredibly beautiful – moments of frustration set in, full of awareness of my thoughts and surroundings, rather than the music. Sciarrino has said that he is seeking “The tension and the thoughts of the person who listens, made perceptible by the person who plays.” I think this is an apt description of the self-awareness we experience during extended-duration works.
Maybe we have to accept this boredom, these frustrations, as a part of the experience of listening to music. The experience of one’s self is often uncomfortable, and just as often illuminating. I’ve done some great composing in my mind during concert performances that started to bore me.