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Musical Space: Much Music from Few Notes


The musical score for a four-movement symphony can be well over a hundred pages long. It’s interesting, though, to see how much great music is written on just a page or so.

Country, folk, and rock tunes, pretty much anything that’s made the pop charts since World War II, can be expressed as a few lines of text with chord symbols written above.

Jazz musicians prefer to learn tunes by ear, but when they have to read they use a similar system: a melody written with chords above, usually one page or less. Reading these chord charts on the gig is called “faking”; collections of these are called “fake books.” Miles Davis gets maximal results with the song “Flamenco Sketches” from the album Kind of Blue. There is no written melody or specified duration; it’s just a sequence of five scales. Davis’ masterful quintet turns these into a 9 1/2 minute exploration of color and style.

Repetition is key for getting a lot from a few notes, and minimalism is the perfect case in point. The score for Terry Riley’s ensemble piece “In C” is just one page, a list of simple licks to be repeated by the individual players at will; performances last about an hour. Steve Reich’s devilishly hard “Piano Phase” for two pianos extracts 20 minutes of intricate music from just one page of music and some simple instructions.

John Cage, though, wins the length-per-page prize with his piece “As Slow As Possible.” Its eight pages are being realized by an organ which was specially built for a performance that is scheduled to last 639 years. You can find a live feed of the concert online http://www.aslsp.org/de: try to listen before the next note change, which will happen in the year 2020.


Listening list for podcast:

Kyrie,” Missa prolationum by Johannes Ockeghem, Hilliard Ensemble, Ockeghem - Sacred Choral Works:  


“The Bottle Let me Down” Merle: Two chord song:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4ujMvABhkE

I and V7

(Alternatively “Jambalya” Hank Williams - same two chords:


The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows” Revolver, 2 chords: B and A/B: 


One-chord song:

Aretha Franklin “Chain of Fools” C7:


Miles Davis, “Flamenco Sketches,” Kind of Blue:


Sonny Rollins “Oleo” written over chords to “I Got Rhythm”: 


Terry Riley, “In C”:


Steve Reich “Piano Phase”: 


John Cage,  “As Slow As Possible” http://www.aslsp.org/de

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.