Indicted for Suspected Serialism
All complaining aside, one of the really cool things about being a graduate student is the periodic opportunity to have one’s piece read by killer visiting performers. I took part in such a reading yesterday. It was great to hear a new slant on an older piece, of course, but even more interesting were the assumptions the player, a violinist of some stature, made about the piece based on its notation and “style.”
One of the first things he noted about the piece before he even began to play was that he presumed it to be serially constructed, which it isn’t, really. Was it the parametric staff, the frequent and extreme dynamic changes, or just the crunchy harmonies that gave him that impression? He said it reminded him of Boulez, which was somehow both flattering and alarming. I’ve never been accused of serialism before, but the feeling is akin to what I imagine Alice Cooper went through when they said he bit a chicken’s head off.
He also played through the piece entirely without vibrato. The faster sections sounded cleaner this way than they have in previous vibrato-ful performances, but the slow section seemed somehow lifeless. The solution is obviously to add a performance note about vibrato to the score, but I had to wonder whether he’d exposed a flaw in the piece of which I was unaware: The notes and rhythms alone are apparently insufficient to carry the musical argument. His decision not to use vibrato raised another, more general question about performance practice: Do players just assume they shouldn’t employ vibrato on serial-looking pieces nowadays?
It may be specious to draw a connection between Assumption A and Assumption B. However, it’s not hard to envision the chain of deductions this performer might have made: The piece is atonal and structures performative parameters in ways that do not immediately seem to be rhetorically expressive—it’s probably serial. Serial pieces require a certain clarity of pitch and timbre to be successfully executed. To maintain this clarity, it is not unprecedented to abandon the conventionally (i.e. rhetorically) expressive exercise of vibrato.
My colleagues and I spend so much of our composing time refining our notation that our fastidiousness sometimes seems excessive even to us. Yesterday’s reading, however, suggested that time spent agonizing over notational decisions is probably time well spent after all—those notational decisions can inform players’ interpretive decisions in unforeseen and sometimes startling ways.