In all media, big things have an allure. Tall buildings and sculptures inspire awe. Long, dense pieces of literature often amass dedicated followings who take pleasure in dissecting the minutiae of meaning hidden in every page. When musicians try to make “big” compositions, they unfortunately most often translate the physical size of buildings and the density of books into the duration of a piece of music. In attempting to achieve the same level of grandiosity and intrigue, musicians somewhat paradoxically often end up creating pieces that are incredibly mundane and difficult to sit through.
Often times, I find myself more interested in the concept of long songs than by actual long songs. I fully understand the fascination with unfathomably long periods of time exhibited by the group Bull of Heaven, who have written several pieces longer than the projected lifespan of the universe. I appreciate pieces like John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP, a rather simple piano piece meant to be played slow enough to last for 639 years. Excluding these and other such anomalies, there are plenty of other “long” songs that are only a few hours. While these less extreme examples are sometimes interesting conceptually, they are usually not easy to sit through, and, I suspect, though I do not know for sure, almost never worth the effort.
The uninspired and often repetitive compositions that result from this line of thinking are often justified as having “hypnotic” or “meditative” qualities. Defenders and practitioners of this technique will often chalk the shortcomings of the piece up to the listener’s short attention span and lack of appreciation for artistic innovation. By framing music as a test of the listener’s patience, we lose sight of what we actually want to communicate, and alienate our audience for no good reason.
There are times when long pieces and heavy repetition are necessary. Pieces that succeed with these techniques are not to be understated for their power as works of art. However, when length is the goal of the music and not a consequence of the music’s natural development, the result tends to be uninteresting. This is a problem that is experienced not just by the composer who wants to capture the sense of awe generated by canyons, planets, and the universe, but by the composer who feels that a twenty minute orchestral piece is too short and wants to work up to at least thirty, or by the rock band who turn a perfectly good 90 second song into a three and a half minute snoozefest due to the pressure to write a "real song”.
But what about minimalism? Long pieces are minimalism’s bread and butter. Surely this movement could not have been so influential throughout the latter half of the 20th century without some sort of redeeming qualities. To be fair, minimalist music has produced some incredible art in the 20th and 21st centuries by slowly developing musical ideas in creative and interesting ways. However, it has produced an equal if not greater number of uninteresting, highly repetitive, and undeveloped musical ideas, and marketed them as profound. These pieces use minimalism’s focus on stretching out a simple idea as an excuse for lazy composition rather than as a mode of expression. One cannot help but wonder if many of these pieces would not benefit from being shortened from ten, twenty, thirty, or sixty minutes, down to three, two, or one. After all, if one of the goals of minimalism is to cut back the unnecessary fat of a piece, why not cut back on it’s length as well?
There is no shame in writing short pieces. By stretching an idea for more than it is truly worth, we waste not only our audience's time, but our own time. While it is clearly up to interpretation what constitutes “too long” for any given piece of music, the general trend should be to round down, not up.