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A brief and wholly insignificant (to most of us anyway, but not, I presume, to those involved) news item caught my eye the other day. Ludwig Wittgenstein's only known musical work recently had its world premiere in Cambridge. At four bars, it lasts less than 30 seconds and is little more than a powerful, fiery flourish.

The prominent UK-born composer Anthony Powers was among those present at the premiere and when asked about the work, he stated matter-of-factly, "There's nothing particularly remarkable about it. We haven't found a snatch of a lost great work. But it's like the continuation of an incomplete sentence, as if he had started to say something and hadn't the words to finish it, and turned to music. That's what is really interesting."

Hmmmm. What I find really interesting is that people of some renown got dressed up and left their homes to listen to an unremarkable 30-second composition written not by a composer but by a philosopher and then had the temerity to explain themselves with a statement that makes about as much sense as a mother dropping off her teenage son at Neverland for a play date with Michael.

But in this age of three-hour movies, four-hour baseball games, and 30-hour Senate filibusters, I was intrigued by the sublime beauty of brevity in artistic expressions. I’m not talking about how long it takes artists to create their work, but rather how long (or in this case, short) it ends up being. So I searched out a few examples where short is not only sweet, but interesting, enlightening, and, in some cases, entertaining.

COMPOSING

Helen, have you seen my notes...?

Not to take anything away from Wittgenstein, but a legitimate composer, John Cage, wrote what has authoritatively been recorded by those arbiters of all things inane, the Guinness World Record folks, as the musical composition with the fewest number of notes: a 1952 piece called 4’33", written "for any instrument" and consisting of no notes at all. Instead, the performer sits quietly on stage and the "music" is the noise created by the increasingly irritated and confused audience.

Minnesota-based flutist Janis Weller has performed the Cage piece a number of times and reports that it's always fascinating to experience (and discuss) the results. She does confess, however, that while four minutes and 33 seconds doesn't seem like a long time on paper, to the performer, who must face an audience expecting music with stoic stillness, it is, "nearly an interminable length—in some settings, I've chosen to perform one 'movement' of it, say, 1'44" or somesuch."

The bugle calls, emotion swells

Beethoven stirs your soul. The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah can make people see God. But the one music performance that always wells up pure, raw, tear-streaked emotion in under a minute is the solitary bugler playing Taps. This eloquent and haunting melody traditionally played at funerals and memorial services achieves unparalleled emotional power with just 24 notes.

WRITING

Fifty-Five Fiction for fun

At their best, short stories are wonderful examples of language economy and ideal entertainment for people who have so little free time in their frenetic lives that it would take them a year to read a full-length novel. But how short can a story be and still be considered a good story? One of my favorite Peanuts comic strips supplied one answer when Linus pleaded with Lucy to tell him a story and she grudgingly obliged with: "A man was born. He lived and died. The end." Short, yes, but not very satisfying.

In the late eighties, Steve Moss invented a format that called for writers to create stories using no more than 55 words. These stories had to contain four elements: 1) a setting: 2) a character or characters; 3) conflict; and 4) resolution. The results of this so-called Fifty-Five Fiction contest were edited into a book called The World’s Shortest Stories. As Steve explains in his introduction, "This is storytelling at its very leanest, where each word is chosen with utmost care on its way to achieving its fullest effect. It’s what O. Henry might have conjured up if he’d had only the back of a business card to write upon." Here’s a taste of Fifty-Five Fiction:

All At Sea

By Rosemary Manchester

Her quick footsteps overhead awakened him. Fearful of passing ships, she’d slept on deck. Her caution irritated him: they had quarreled.

He heard the splash. Ignoring her screams for help, he turned his radio louder. Then he wondered what had alarmed her.

The huge tanker came swiftly, on collision course with the little sloop.

Haiku, haiku, one day

Haiku is starvation diet poetry. This short, 17-syllable form, usually written in three lines with a 5-7-5 syllable count, focuses on a single, insightful moment. A well-executed haiku is rooted in the physical world of our senses, yet suggests something deeper, often evoking the mysterious, transitory nature of our spiritual existence. Here’s a thought provoking example penned by my Wheaten terrier on a day when he was particularly bored, yet obviously experiencing a wave of Asian-inspired reflection:

I lift my leg and

Wiz on the nice bush. Come, Spot

Sniff and know my soul

SPEAKING

You may commence talking

Nothing is more excruciating than being stuck in a folding chair on a football field in inclement weather listening to a long and boring commencement address. It’s simply not possible for a young person wearing a choir robe and goofy hat to walk out in the middle of one of these droning orations.

The brilliant cartoonist Garry Trudeau once suggested that the purpose of commencement speeches was to ensure that "outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they had been properly sedated." A platitudinous commencement discourse will sedate an audience of thousands more efficiently than the contents of Elizabeth Taylor's medicine cabinet.

But occasionally, graduates get lucky and the invited speaker takes brevity to new heights in the interest of allowing the antsy group to get on with their lives sooner rather than later.

There have been several extremely short commencement addresses. Winston Churchill, not necessarily known as a man of few words, once proclaimed simply, "Never, never, never, give up!" The eccentric painter Salvador Dali assured his place in the record book when he stood before his captive audience of impressionable young adults and said simply, "I will be so brief, I have already finished."

But the big (little?) prize for shortest commencement speech must go to Nels H. Smith, governor of Wyoming from 1938-1943. When his turn came to speak, Smith rose from his chair, strode to the podium, and said: "You done good." And then sat down.

ACTING

I didn’t know you were in that film

The cameo is a well-established tradition in the movie business. It can make for great sport trying to spot the well-known star in a brief but disguised role, such as Robert De Niro in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, one of the best movies most people have never seen.

But it takes a special actor indeed to receive an Oscar for what could almost pass as an extended cameo. In 1998, Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for her less than eight minutes of screen time as Queen Elisabeth in Shakespeare In Love. Nothing like 10 pounds of pancake makeup, an elaborate period wardrobe, and a proper English accent to seduce the Academy voters.

Taking physical stature to new lows

Again using the Oscar as the test for legitimacy, I’m going to assume (perhaps incorrectly, but this isn’t a doctoral thesis after all) that Linda Hunt was the shortest adult actor to win an Oscar for her portrayal of midget male photographer Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously.

ADVERTISING

See spot sell

TV commercials have always been an irritant to everyone except those in the advertising business and their clients who pay the bills. Remember when VCRs became commonplace and people were so excited because they could now record their favorite show and fast forward through the annoying commercials? And then TIVO came along and advertisers were up in arms because they feared viewers would skip through commercials altogether.

Well, have you seen what passes for entertainment on TV these days? If the best we can do is Survivor 47 followed by Dwarf Bachelorette you’d be better off TIVOing the 15-second and 30-second commercial spots with the tricky editing and eye popping special effects and dumping the actual programming. For pure now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t creativity, TV commercials, especially foreign-produced spots, are like cinematic canapes—easy to consume and leaving you wanting more.

*******

There’s certainly nothing wrong in implanting yourself into a 1,500-page novel, or getting swept up in a call to arms by a fiery, impassioned speech, or successfully managing your bladder through a non-stop viewing of the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings. But sometimes, super short expressions of artistic brilliance can be quite satisfying, like spotting a shooting star, or witnessing the career arc of Fabio. Besides, if all concert performances ended as quickly as our friend Herr Wittgenstein’s, think of the extra time we’d have for bar hopping after the show.

 

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