Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Keeping Our Place



What follows is a guest post by Jennifer Judkins. Jennifer is an Adjunct Professor at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, where she teaches music bibliography for performers and guides graduate research. She spent many years standing in the back of orchestras counting rests, and her musings between timpani rolls have nursed many years of interest and writing in aesthetics, especially in regard to musical performance. Recently, she was a contributor to the Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music (2011)

Large crowed gathered in church.
(St. Burchardi church, Halberstadt, Germany)

John Cage (who else?) wrote a piece in 1987 titled As Slow As Possible. A performance of one version (ORGAN2/ASLSP) for organ began at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, in 2001. A group of philosophers (who else?) and musicians had decided that this particular performance should last 639 years, since the first organ with a modern keyboard was built there 639 years prior. The piece, written for piano or organ, begins with a long rest, so the first note didn’t actually sound until two years after the piece began.

Sheet music showing time planned time stamps forb a measure.
(Score snippet: ORGAN2/ASLSP)

This piece is still ongoing in that Halberstadt church, on a small, specially built, programmed organ encased in an acrylic cube to protect it and reduce the sound volume. The New York Times covered the chord change that occurred in 2006. For those of you at home, you missed the last chord sounded, in 2013. The next chord will be played on September 5, 2020. (Yes, actually “played,” in that individuals adjust the pedals or pipes to sound the next chordal tones.)

Colourful theatre chairs.
(Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles)

Lengthy musical works in Western music start appearing as early as the seventeenth century, with some early operas running close to two hours. Bach’s 1729 St. Matthew Passion is nearly three hours long. Wagner’s Die Walküre, premiered in 1870, is four and a half to five hours long — bested in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Longest Opera” only by his own Die Meistersinger von NürnbergDie Walküre, of course, is only part of Wagner’s Ring, which encompasses four operas heard over four days. Even the Ring, however, is no match for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht, a cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week. This nearly thirty-hour work is usually performed in a huge spaces, and it features countless truly stupefying effects, including a string quartet playing from helicopters above the concert hall, and a camel that presides over the galaxy, dances to a trombone, and defecates planets.

Man plays cello in helicopter.
(Birmingham Opera performance of Licht, 2012)

Musical works can certainly seem longer than they actually are. The gorgeous slow movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is only eight minutes long. Bruckner’s seemingly never-ending Eighth Symphony is (only) about an hour and twenty-two minutes long. And, of course, a bad performance can make almost anything feel interminable.

More typical lengthy musical works that only go hours and not years, like cantatas, operas, and symphonies, require that the workload be spread out in a humane manner, and therefore they usually require large numbers of musicians. The more frail vehicles are rested as needed: the solo singers alternate with the chorus in the cantatas, and the brass players are often tacet in the slow movements. The audience may actually be more physically challenged than those on stage, at least in terms of total elapsed time. When the L.A. Opera performed Das Rheingold in 2009, the Los Angeles Times made much of the fact that there is a lot of water imagery in the opera, and that this made the running time of almost three hours without intermission especially concerning. (“Applause isn’t the only thing you’ll have to hold until the end” — Diane Haithman’s review.)* 

Most musicians performing lengthy works do so with music, with the score or parts in front of them on a music stand, for obvious reasons. Concert pianists, however, are infamous for performing gigantic works from memory. This is particularly staggering when one considers that their repertoire contains the lengthiest works — by far — in the solo classical repertoire (Brahms’ Piano Sonata no. 3 can run almost forty minutes, and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier almost 50 minutes). The relative “thickness” of piano works, which have both melodic and harmonic content, only adds to the feat.

We can imagine that arduous memorization process, at least the mechanics of it, one phrase leading to the next, perhaps a type of entrainment joins it all, lots of muscle memory… yet what about the conception of the work as a whole? The difficulty of producing a musical interpretation in both large and very fine scale? Consistency of style? How is it that these piano soloists keep their place artistically?

Pianists have a peculiar ownership of this skill, where they have to play “in the moment,” and also produce a cohesive interpretation of a lengthy work, from memory, all by themselves. Conductors have the option of using a full score in leading a performance, and therefore “see” the architecture to come, to some degree. They may conduct without a score; however, one might argue that symphony players with written parts do all the heavy lifting for conductors who have “memorized” scores. Instrumentalists have parts on the music stands in front of them: the sheet music, even orchestral parts with many rests, are a strong visual outline of the musical form. 

(Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

For any performer, a memorized solo performance is always considered to be more musical and aesthetically superior to one played using a score (which is an interesting assumption). Most concertos, no matter what the instrument, are performed without music. Concert pianists, however, are the only musicians who attempt this with such extremely lengthy works, and often without orchestral accompaniment.

This insistence on memorization in piano culture is actually a fairly recent tradition, and came out of the rage for virtuosity in the nineteenth century. Clara Schumann was one of the early few playing from memory, although Liszt is often credited. These days pianists rarely use music when they play the standard repertoire, even at a young age. Granted, contemporary or avant-garde works are often exempted from the tradition, and the sheet music and/or a page-turner comes out for those pieces, seemingly in acknowledgement that the less tonal a work is, the more difficult it is to memorize. (There may also be a complicit yet unfortunate agreement that expression can hardly suffer when tonality is not present.) 

Pace some long-standing music theoretical concepts, musicians are actually not able to hold large musical architecture in their immediate consciousness as they perform. (Jerrold Levinson, in Music and the Moment, posits that a similar foreground-centric experience is also true for listeners.) In fact, I would venture that in terms of performing in the moment, and at the same time having the musical form — in detail — before us in our mind (without a score or a part), we’re in trouble with anything much longer than the “Star Spangled Banner” or perhaps a minuet. 

However, the fact is that a good performance, done by memory, can often result in a detailed, keenly evolved, large-structure interpretation, even with very lengthy works. How does this happen if performers feel that they can’t keep the larger structure in mind moment-to-moment? My first suspicions are that this larger interpretation and deeper architectural understanding is first pieced together in the practice room, where performers refer back and forth both to the score and their parts stylistically as well as theoretically. Moments are developed and connected in deference to a carefully developed larger vision. The work as a whole is then crafted into a unified stylistic statement, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, and that sound structure and the motion-memory of playing it stays in the performer’s mind — providing the template against which the specific interpretation of a particular performance is overlaid. This subtle “troping” requires that the nuances of expression that differentiate performances of the same work by the same artist be foregrounded against that earlier, detailed, structural background evolved in the practice room.

What stays with the performer after this theoretical dissection in rehearsal is an overall conception of how it should sound, based on choices she has made in regard to the larger musical issues, such as tempo, historical style, tone color, articulation, bowings/stickings, dynamics, and phrasing. The specific, individual interpretation for this hall, this night, this performance is laid closely over this rich blueprint.

Musicians themselves may have somewhat less explicit formal or structural knowledge of works, and even those operating with more of a musical “outline” than a dissected analysis can often produce thoughtful, appropriate interpretations. Only the most general of structural outlines, though, can remain entirely before any of them in their mind as they perform, without risk to the dynamic nature of creating a performance, without risking the ability to shape an interpretation moment to moment. Like Levinson’s listener, successful performers rely on connecting local movement with that immediately preceding and succeeding, always within a larger vision of the musical style. 

Empty theatre with a piano on stage
(Berlin Konzerhaus)

For any musician, even those playing with music, embarking on that first phrase of a very lengthy work gives the feeling of both beginning a well-mapped, inexorable journey forward, and free fall. When this engagement takes place via reading a part or a score, we can see the landmarks, which help us keep our place logistically and feelingfully. When solo pianists perform these monstrously difficult works from memory, they embark on this musical path with only a subconscious map (albeit well-prepared), and their musical instincts. From their mental images of the work’s soundscape, they must construct everything from the smallest detail to the grandest architecture, fully inhabiting and deeply living each moment.

I spoke to one of my colleagues, contemporary pianist Gloria Cheng, about the performer’s journey, by memory, through these long solos. She struggled to articulate how the ongoingness keeps, well, ongoing. Interestingly though, she said that even in the most difficult works, pianists look for “pit stops,” places in the score where they can rest mentally even as they continue to play: “It’s like a long road trip. You’re always considering the next pee break.”  

*A percussionist in the LA Opera was once quoted in regard to Die Meistersinger:

“You play the overture and I think the first scene and then it says an hour and 29 minutes rest. We left the pit, went next door to the Curtain Call restaurant, had dinner, and came back. And while you were there, since Die Meistersinger is four and a half to five hours long, so are half the singers.”

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