This summer, I was reminded by one of my students of the importance of ‘compositional stamina’, a concept I use to convey the difficulty in distinguishing between real time and musical time. Real time, the time we perceive on a clock or stopwatch, simply passes by, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. It’s reliable, it’s consistent, and unless you’re speaking of astrophysical phenomena or relativistic physics, it’s the same for everyone.
Musical time is the malleable and flexible path created during a musical performance. Musical time can speed up or slow down, and rarely does it have any actual bearing on real time. Composers manipulate our perception of real time through variations of tempo, density, and thematic transformations (repetition, fragmentation, modulation). And more often than not, musical time runs a bit faster than real time. That is, 10 minutes of musical time may feel like it only took 7 or 8 minutes.
Young composers often ignore the realities of musical time, resulting in pieces that sound like they are not long enough, or that the musical ideas have not been fully fleshed out. And when you ask them “how long is the piece?” their own perceptions of length are way off. Here is where “compositional stamina” comes in.
When a student comes in with a piece where the musical ideas just don’t seem like they’ve been fully explored, I ask them to think about the stamina of their idea. Could the passage go a bit longer? Can you sustain this idea just a bit more? Push the idea forward with more transformations. When you think you’ve done enough, do some more. And some more. And then, just a bit more.
Keep going, going on. Call that going? Call that on? [reference 1] [reference 2]
It’s always easier to edit a piece down, and we should spend a lot of time making sure that our work’s musical time matches the real-time perceptions of our audiences. After all, it’s this manipulation of musical versus real time that is ultimately at the heart of the musical experience.