How to make concerts not boring

I was thinking about a piece of music today, and thought I’d procrastinate by trying to track it down. It was a piece my teacher in grad school, Lukas Foss, used to bring up as a good example of a composer being “naughty.” (“Naughty” was always a compliment coming from him.)

I did find it — an 1972 orchestral number called “…No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes” by the dean of Canadian composers, R. Murray Schafer. The joke was, at least as far as I knew, that the title was taken straight from the legalese in the commission, so Schafer made that the title and, of course, made the piece longer than ten minutes.

Well, that ain’t the half of it. This piece, at least on paper, sounds seriously awesome. The Toronto Symphony’s practice at the time was to put new music at the beginning of the concert, so subscribers could take comfort in being fashionably late. As Schafer writes:

The management of the [Toronto Symphony] had informed me that the new work would have the distinction of being first on the program “when the audience was fresh.” I determined to screw them up by agglutinating my piece to the next piece on the program so that there would be no opportunity to open the doors between numbers, and late-comers would have to wait outside until the intermission.

The piece emerges out of the orchestra tune-up; as the second piece on the program was to be the Brahms B-flat piano concerto, Schafer ended his piece by having the last desk strings sustain a dominant chord (that would be resolved by the opening of the Brahms) with the instruction to keep playing it after the piece was “over,” after the conductor left the stage, during the pause, and until the downbeat of the next piece. But wait, there’s more:

The climax is reached after a long crescendo precisely at ten minutes. Then the conductor signals the orchestra to cut and turns to leave the stage. But the orchestra continues to hold the last chord, only gradually fading down. Now the instructions are to go back to the beginning of the crescendo if there is applause from the audience and to continue repeating the crescendo to the climax for as long as the applause continues.

The longer the audience applauds, the longer the piece goes on.

Needless to say, the result was commotion. Schafer says that, after a couple of rounds from a pre-planted claque, the audience actually caught on to the joke, and kept triggering new crescendos from the percussion. Finally the conductor reappeared and plunged the orchestra into the next piece (not the Brahms; management had gotten wind of Schafer’s scheme and rearranged the program). Let Schafer have the last word:

Of course the critics were unkind. They attacked me for being insincere. Not a word about the fraudulence of others. Bang,
Schafer gets it right over the head. One critic even suggested that I appeared to be finished as a composer. My poor mother almost believed him.

No recording; as far as I can tell, no repeat performance. According to another source, graphic elements in the score were derived from Vancouver traffic patterns. Sweet Jesus, somebody needs to program this thing.

(Quotes are from Schafer’s own PDF compendium of program notes for all his works. It’s long — “No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes” notes start on page 33.)

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