Bending and Breaking

I enjoyed reading Frank J Oteri’s account of grappling with his 3-minute solo sax piece, and I think I share something of Kyle Gann’s astonishment at a delightful irony he details:

“I have always found it bizarre that almost every composition class immediately assigns a solo flute piece as the students’ first assignment (or oboe, or other melody instrument) when a good, memorable solo flute piece is just about the most difficult thing in the world to write.”

Seriously—It’s hard enough to write a satisfying, fleshed-out work for the unaccompanied violin or cello, which both offer the possibility of reliable double stops and in Bach’s hands, a fully-realized SATB texture. In fact, don’t we particularly revere Bach’s solo string suites, sonatas, and partitas because of how masterfully they surmount that challenge? I’ve just now listened to Bach’s lone solo flute partita, BWV 1013, which sounds effortless and probably required some very careful handling of register. How hilarious then that students are routinely assigned such a vexing task! Personally, I would consider a short solo wind piece to be a good deal more taxing on my compositional resources than a 5-10 minute disposable “concert opener” for orchestra written with the same timeframe in mind (and really, who needs any more of those?)

In reality, I’m sure most composition teachers assign this kind of task precisely as “exercise”—stretching one’s compositional chops with extreme situations and/or limitations. Surely this has some value as a principle, but I often wonder how much is too much.

Sometimes when an artist bends himself enough to the task at hand, he or she breaks through instead of just breaking. And some voices can tolerate more stylistic change than others, too; think of Stravinsky’s many stylistic periods, during each of which the composer produced major works that were unmistakably his own; then think of Lukas Foss, a talented composer who I have always considered to be something of a trend-hopper. And keeping with Stravinsky, sometimes all kinds of quirks and idiosyncrasies end up becoming important—what if Rimsky-Korsakov had made him “work on his transitions”? Surely, any teacher would have been right to point this tendency out, or perhaps to assign some kind of exercise, in order to differentiate a stylistic choice from a deficiency. It’s a hard line to toe: no one wants to crush an original emerging voice, but then I’ve had students bring the Stravinsky example up as some kind of excuse to persist in some ungainly habit or another. Ralph Vaughan Williams once recounted an incident in which he had turned in a piece to a teacher with a minor pitch error—a C Major scale with the 7th degree omitted and 6th repeated in its stead; the teacher is said to have puzzled for hours over whether the young RVW meant something “characteristic”. So there is just as much need for the teacher to be willing to come in with the red pencil when called for. It seems to me that a lot of being an effective teacher involves learning to keep these two sides in balance.

I’ll soon have the opportunity to write something for Schubert Octet instrumentation (string quintet, clarinet, bassoon, and horn). I have to confess it’s not an instrumentation that I feel particularly drawn to. Even after listening to examples ranging from Schubert’s own to a recent work for the instrumentation by Jorg Widmann, I can’t imagine it working for me even thought I hear how it worked for them. The combination feels somehow too large to be intimate, yet a few instruments shy of a really balanced chamber orchestra. If I were more creative, would I not be having this problem? Would committing to the project push me into a new and exciting direction? Sometimes it’s truly difficult to differentiate between a failure of imagination and genuine preference.

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