Balancing Act

This week I was discussing composing with soprano and champion of new music Lucy Shelton, who I’m looking forward to collaborating with. Although Lucy just met me, I suppose I really met Lucy years ago through her varied recordings of contemporary works and also through some of her talks on composing for the voice that I attended back when I was a freshman in college.

I told Lucy that although I never introduced myself back in the day, I nevertheless was strongly influenced and encouraged by her comments to composers. In particular, I recall one seminar in which Lucy asked a group of young composers to perform their own newly minted vocal compositions to the best of their ability, regardless of any discrepancy between the intended voice type and that of the composer. This was a great exercise, as many of the composers discovered that they were not really singing the durations, rests, and articulations that they themselves had inscribed but rather something a bit different. Sometimes these exercises revealed an overly finicky marking; at other times, they revealed exactly which passages and leaps were most difficult.

When I mentioned this to Lucy and thanked her for the early tips, she quipped “Well, I hope that didn’t make you write too conservatively for the voice!”

“Not at all,” I replied. Lucy had taught me something about the need to be aware of reality, and to respect the realities that face performers of all kinds when confronting unfamiliar music. To the composer (who frequently is off chasing after the unique and original in the realm of the ideal), this is one of the few things that tethers us to earthly concerns.

But I think that Lucy was right that it’s entirely possible for a composer to become excessively concerned with the needs of the real world to the point where the original, wonderful, otherworldly ideas are lost. A desire to make sure one’s music is physically performable is one thing, as in many cases that’s the only way for us to share our ideas—by expressing them in the material world. But an excessive desire to please soon becomes a form of pandering.

Composing has always struck me as a kind of balancing act between many elements, but perhaps most baldly it is an attempt to balance the needs of the ideal with the needs of the physical. I may envision such and such a passage at M.M. 240, but the real-life harpsichord I’m writing for may not accommodate me; I may passionately desire that an orchestra piece include six flutes, but if I refuse to compromise here I will likely never hear it played. Everyone has different artistic lines in the sand they will stand behind, yet on the other hand I cannot imagine some of my favorite experimental music without a thorough and disciplined inquiry into the realities and consequences of those experiments.

For me, there’s always been an element of mediation and compromise at the heart of composing; although it might be more accurate to say that this attempt at reconciliation is composing.

3 thoughts on “Balancing Act

  1. Rob Deemer

    Flip side o’ the coin
    Good thoughts, Dan…I’m in a very similar position, having an opportunity to write a work for Tony Arnold. I think your post has a secondary issue lying underneath the surface…working with an artist whose talents allow a composer almost limitless options as far as what they can be asked to do can also force the composer to confront what their true voice is. I’ve caught myself more than once questioning whether or not I’m writing something because I feel it’s needed artistically or whether or not it’s what I should write for Tony based on the repertoire she is known for. The balance is found between my decisions of when to push my own material into places it might not normally go with my decisions of when to ask the artist to venture where they may not normally go.

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  2. davidwolfson

    I dunno; to me subjugating composition to the physical realities of the performer is a good example of the kind of discipline that strengthens an artistic process. One of the first things one does when composing is choose limits, whether consciously, unconsciously or by default; very often, the more limits, the more creativity.

    I was also influenced in this area by a conversation I had with a young opera singer about 20 years ago. We were talking about many singers’ general reluctance to look at new music; I think Milton Babbit’s Philomel was mentioned. The gist of her comment was that “music like that takes away everything that’s fun about singing. It doesn’t feel good to perform.” Obviously, that’s one person’s opinion; but ever since then the question “What is this going to feel like to perform?” has hovered over every note I’ve written.

    David Wolfson

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  3. tubatimberinger

    Musical Cultures
    Another thing I have noticed is the differences between how certain ‘Instrumental Communities’ (brass players v.s. string players v.s. singers). Can effect this. For instance, most singers do not enjoy performing music which employs more modern techniques etc. But every percussionist I’ve ever met LOVES new music. They thrive on it.
    There are subsets to this as well. I would say brass players also prefer singable, melodic stuff on the whole. But tubists (this i feel I can speak on authoritatively being a tubist myself) are more likely to embrace a new piece than say a trumpet player.
    Of course, both percussion and tuba share a similar shortage of music stemming from there relatively newness to the instrumental scene. We pretty much start out playing modern stuff.

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