When I was a kid, I never wanted to go to bed. I was having too much fun. I’m the same as an adult. This character flaw has led me to a somewhat controllable life of sleep deprivation, but now I’m really in danger thanks to Netflix. My son, Caleb, texted me yesterday afternoon asking if I had watched the new Netflix series, Ozark. I hadn’t even heard of it, so I watched the first episode. Wow! I was hooked. 21 hours later, I’d watched all ten 1-hour episodes. As soon as one episode finished, I couldn’t help but go directly to the next one. Episodic shows like this are designed to make you want to see what happens next.
Whenever I watch an episodic show like Better Call Saul, I feel disappointed and even cheated when the episode is over, and I have to wait another week to see how things turn out. So when Netflix puts entire seasons on my TV at one time, I can’t resist watching all the episodes in one or two sittings. This time around, I did pause Ozark in the middle to watch the Yankee game. By the way, I generally watch every Yankee game each year except when I am travelling. Obsessive you think? I never watched the Larry Sanders Show when it was originally on, so when Netflix aired it years ago, I watched all 7 seasons in one weekend. I know you think I’m nuts, but remember, those were only half-hour shows. Hey, they were really funny.
I’ve always been the same with books. Once I get into a book, I can’t wait to find out how the story ends. So I will stay up to all hours—sometimes to five or six AM. For most people, this wouldn’t be so bad. They would sleep late, so that they could get their 6 or 8 hours, but not me. Ever since Caleb was born, I’ve been an early riser, no matter what time I hit the sack. I could go to bed at 6:00 and wake up at 7 or 7:30. Believe me, that does not feel good.
Why do I torture myself like this? Good question. I was thinking last night that I had time in the morning to watch a few episodes, so I didn’t have to watch all 10 hours before bed. Actually, this worked—well, kinda. I finished episode 8 around 3:15 AM and was starting to feel tired, so I forced myself to shut off the TV and retire. Actually, I had been trying to do that since 1 AM.
So, I woke up this morning at 7:15, read the paper, had breakfast and watched the final 2 episodes of season 1. At the end of each season, these shows always tie up most of the loose ends, but also leave you wanting to come back next year. And so they did with this one. I’m not sure what is worse: the end of a season, or the end of a series. It’s like when I read a novel—the characters become like friends to me. I hate to lose them. Either way, I lose.
I’ve always been a sucker for a good story. It could be as short as a joke or a short story, or it could be a movie or a novel. I just love character development. When I was a kid, I could always follow the plot in stories, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that one of my English teachers pointed out that what makes literature great is the character development. I didn’t understand that concept at first, but I stuck with it.
A good plot can keep us interested, but it is the characters that make the experience rich. In great literature, the hero must face a challenge, and, in overcoming it, he/she develops character. We all develop character as we go through life, but in art, everything must be condensed, or we would get bored watching or reading.
All this is true in music as well. The central motif or motifs of a piece get transformed gradually as the piece progresses, so that after all the development when we return to the theme, we appreciate how far we have come. The best developers are the best storytellers and the best storytellers create the greatest music. These are the classics that will live forever while other pieces fall by the wayside due to shallowness or lack of depth.
Originally recordings were 3-4 minutes in length. This didn’t allow for much development. Whatever was going to happen had to happen quickly. An Ellington piece like Ko-Ko is amazing for how much it says in 2 minutes and 45 seconds. European symphonies develop at a much slower pace over a span of 30-50 minutes.
Novels are generally 100-400 pages. There are long novels of 800 or a little more, but they are in the minority. There are a few sagas that tell a multigenerational story over several books. Movies are generally 90 -260 minutes. It’s difficult to condense a 400-page novel into that short a time frame. Over the past few decades, there have been a number of mini-series that have spun out novels over 4, 6, 8 or even 10 hours. Roots became a cultural event—a multigenerational, 120-year story spun out over 9 hours shown on 8 nights in 1977. Part 1, which ran 90 minutes is some of the most powerful TV I have ever seen. Quincy Jones’ score for that segment is beyond category.
I can’t say that many mini-series have lived up to that promise, but now we are in a different era. With episodic shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, we are able to see movie-quality TV spun out over dozens of hours. The characters are rich and have time to develop. This is so exciting. Kudos to HBO, Showtime, AMC and the other networks who are investing in this new expanded format.
But what about music? Aside from Wagner’s epic operas, audiences’ attention span for music is extremely limited. When I was conducting the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra 25 or 30 years ago, we performed Ellington suites in their entirety at Alice Tully Hall. Wynton has kept that tradition and expanded it to include some new commissions of extended works, but they get very few performances.
I’ve always wondered why I could listen to a piece of music hundreds of times and never tire of it, but once I read a book or see a movie, I need to wait a year or more before I want to read or watch it again. My favorite part of performing music is the rehearsal process. We get to pick the piece apart and put it back together, repeating sections until they are perfected. I always feel that the audience would like the music so much more if they could be in on the entire process. Hearing a piece once is like a first date—it’s new and exciting, but you don’t know the person yet. The depth and richness of experience comes later. You might not want to marry everyone you date, but when you find the right one, if you pay attention, they teach you who you are.