A Real Pageturner
Chalk it up to being raised in the city that never sleeps—the late Peter Schat was horrified when I showed him a score—but I usually compose music with virtually no rests. Of course, the problem with such fare is that unless the performers who play my music memorize it, they’re going to have to turn the page at some point.
Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of fancy ways around this. I’ve requested that players use multiple music stands. This is fine for the new music types, but you’d be surprised how resistant players of traditional repertoire are to this idea. I know that in the orchestra world there are strict guidelines for the size of paper used for parts (9×12) as well as for the size of noteheads and staves, but since I don’t write for orchestra, I’ve tried putting really small staves on gigantic sheets of paper. This actually works better than the multi-stand approach but can still ruffle some feathers. There are reasons for those orchestra guidelines after all. Mostly, I’ve chosen to write work in multiple movements each of which can be played without any page turns. By folding two 11×17 sheets in half, I can get a full four pages per movement which if there’s only one staff line for a part can last, tempo and activity depending of course, up to a full ten minutes.
However, this trick never works for piano music which requires two and sometimes three and even four staves. Last night, my wife and a good friend of ours got together for a casual chamber music reading session. Our cellist friend was fine on his own, but I was enlisted to turn pages throughout for my pianist wife. It didn’t matter what repertoire they were playing. Turns out that Mendelssohn was harder to navigate than Elliott Carter! Every piece they played had plenty of rests although the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata really sounds like it doesn’t. It’s just that the rests never occured at the page turns.
I remembered looking at a set of parts for the Viktor Ewald brass quintets in Boston last summer. The parts were tailor made with rests miraculously appearing at the bottom of every page. Why isn’t that ever the case with piano parts? There’s always an assumption that you can find someone to turn the page. Or you will reformat your part accordingly, although Mendelssohn couldn’t possibly have envisioned photocopiers. But, of course, you can’t reformat music as you’re sightreading it. I have no complaint about turning pages—it actually got me inside some music that I otherwise didn’t know all that well before—but it did make me wonder: what’s so special about pianists that they get to have page turners while other players don’t? Or perhaps rather, why are composers and publishers so careless with parts for pianists when they are diligent about making sure that other musicians’ parts all have rests at page turns?