Betsy Jolas – Just A Minute!

It’s 1 December, so it’s time to begin the second annual 5:4 Advent Calendar. During the next few weeks i’ll be briefly exploring a diverse selection of curiosities, oddities and wonderments. The majority will be short pieces, but i’ll also be featuring larger works occasionally.

i’m beginning with, in all likelihood, the shortest of them all, Betsy Jolas‘ appropriately-named 60-second orchestral work Just a Minute! Composed in 1986, the piece was commissioned by Colorado Music Festival for their tenth anniversary. Its opening is cheeky, imitating (a tone lower) the start of the ‘Danse infernale’ from Stravinsky’s Firebird, but it turns out to be a false – or phony – start. Instead, the music continues in a more problematic way, with evident friction between an urge to press on being continually held-up by sustained notes.

For many composers, having a mere 60 seconds to fill would result in a determined effort to cram in as much activity as humanly possible. Jolas’ very different approach is almost wilfully – and delightfully – self-defeating, the recurring sustains keeping things from moving on as the seconds rapidly tick away. As if to break the deadlock, around the halfway point the orchestra unleashes an even bigger, rather sloppy, tutti accent, but nothing changes – if anything the music sustains even more than before. A third and final, rather grumpy, accent achieves literally nothing; the music instantly peters out, leading to an unexpected, rather mournful, closing bar played by a solo violin.

This performance of Just a Minute! was given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.


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