Make Me an Instrument of Your Piece

name
Mama don’t allow no instruments in here

Over the weekend, I was wandering around Greenwich Village with a violin case on my shoulder. It wasn’t as hot as it is right now, but it was still pretty hot, so I stopped in a Bleecker Street bar tantalizingly named 1849—I’m a sucker for old places, even reconstituted ones—to have a drink. But before I could soak in this fairly recent attempt to recreate a 19th century saloon, the bouncer refused to let me past the doorway, claiming that musical instruments weren’t allowed in the establishment. To add insult to injury, the place features live music from time to time and even has a neon beer sign in the window outlining the shape of an electric guitar. All musicians, and indeed anyone who appreciates listening to music (which is almost everyone), should boycott this place.

However, despite this seeming like a protest rant against a stupid policy (which it admittedly is in part), it got me thinking about a larger compositional issue that’s gnawed at me for many years. There was a long period of time, including the time I was studying composition, when composers were taught that it was somehow better to compose away from an instrument than at one. The tone was basically that real composers shouldn’t have to rely on an instrument as a compositional crutch, and the implication was that if you did, you were somehow an inferior composer, a member of the great unwashed, or perhaps even—horror of horrors—a pop songwriting hack.

At the time I was rather intimidated by all of this since it was difficult for me to pry myself away from the piano. And even after accustoming myself to composing in instrumental isolation occasionally, I frequently still find myself going back to test things out either on a keyboard or, more ideally, on the actual instrument for which I’m writing. That is, unless I’m messing around with microtones, but when I do, my computer’s MIDI playback now thankfully allows me a similar dependency.

Admittedly, getting away from an instrument allows your mind to be opened to ideas beyond your own physical limitations, which is the justification for instrumental abstinence. Often, though, such an avoidance can result in music that is not really suited to the instrument for which it is supposedly written. While it is crucial to stretch yourself whenever you are attempting to create something new, it seems completely antithetical to the physical reality of music to declare a prohibition on musical instruments during the compositional process.

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16 thoughts on “Make Me an Instrument of Your Piece

  1. rtanaka

    Seems like your post somewhat relates to the Honey, We Need To Talk… article posted earlier. Some of the biggest problems I’ve seen in putting performances of new works was miscommunication problems between the composer and the performer, and I think that a lot of it has to do with the composer’s ability to imagine the “physical reality” of the situation, like you said.

    There’s sort of a tendency for composers to place ideas over rendition, which I’m guessing where that whole “compose away from the instrument” thing came from. I dunno, I feel like doing performance work really helped me out a lot in terms of composing…it’s really hard to explain to someone in words what it means to slave away at the practice room for a few hours a day. If you’re a performer yourself, you generally pick up some tricks along the way to make the process of rendition a lot more easier…well, maybe not always easier, but at least more plausible, in some ways.

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  2. CM Zimmermann

    Adorno on Berg
    In the ‘Reminiscence’ section of his ‘Berg’ book, Adorno writes about Berg’s scepticism towards, if not rejection of, music composed out of technical facility with an instrument.

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  3. rtanaka

    In the ‘Reminiscence’ section of his ‘Berg’ book, Adorno writes about Berg’s scepticism towards, if not rejection of, music composed out of technical facility with an instrument.

    I wonder, is this something that comes out of the modern era? Seems like prior to the 20th century most of the well-known composers were either virtuosos or were at least pretty decent performers. Later on we get composers who don’t play anything but instead focus solely on the compositional aspect of things…maybe it has to do something with the idea of specialization or something.

    Course, not all performers are really inclined to write anything, even if they’re very good at what they do…composing really is a different skill. Still, I don’t think it hurts to know the basics involved in the process of performing, like the possibles/impossibles on instrumental technique and the time involved in putting together something. Musicians are generally pretty polite but performers can be pretty ruthless when they sense that homework hasn’t been done…

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  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Frank wrote: getting away from an instrument allows your mind to be opened to ideas beyond your own physical limitations, which is the justification for instrumental abstinence. Often, though, such an avoidance can result in music that is not really suited to the instrument for which it is supposedly written.

    Can you give examples of this oftenness as a more objective truth? Music ‘unsuited’ to one thing or another (performer, conductor, audience…) is a common complaint that fades in time.

    That complaint has been made about my music — until another performer takes it on and whips it up into everything it was meant to be. Sometimes it takes years, as it did with my piece for trombones and tape — somehow ripening into ‘suitableness’ all by itself and being premiered 30 years after it was written.

    It was a comment made once about my string writing — typical for a keyboardist, I was told, but no string player would write like that. I don’t play keyboard, and in fact played violin at the time. Yet keyboardists have called my music idiomatic, even though aphasia makes it impossible for me to play any keyboard at all. How does that reflect on your point?

    The generalization — especially ‘often’ — seems more suited to music by beginners or dilettantes, don’t you think? Unless you have some examples of this unsuitedness by experienced composers?

    Dennis
    We Are All Mozart

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  5. Frank J. Oteri

    Dennis, point well taken about my use of the word “often” which is awfully subjective and ultimately says very little. e.g. For some folks, even a couple of occurances of a distasteful happenstance can be deemed “too often.”

    For what it’s worth, I too, have received comments from players over the years about things I’d written being unidiomatic for a particular instrument, oddly enough, usually one that I can play and had tried the music out on aforehand. I’ve also been told that certain things I had written sounded like they were the result of my mastery of a particular instrument, inevitably one I couldn’t play at all. Go figure… Welcome to the wonderful world of subjectivity.

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  6. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I’m still curious about the question of unidiomatic writing by experienced composers.

    Something more than a shop that banned instruments must have brought that to mind — some specific examples? I don’t mean stupid mistakes (a piece I recently wrote for tenor pan had a few D-flats, which my “a D is a D” vision let pass), but real examples of stuff whose awkwardness doesn’t contribute to the performance or the internal musical sense?

    Dennis

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  7. philmusic

    Frank, this may not be on your topic but I think its related. I think you were looking for an “authentic” village experience when you discovered that the has Village has devolved into a tourist trap serving the carriage trade or become a second home for the wealthy. Varese’s Greenwich Village is as gone as is Hemingway’s Paris. The geographical places remain of course, but their essence of discovery has not remained.

    Wherever those places of inspiration and discovery now exist- violins are always welcome.

    Phil’s page

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  8. rtanaka

    I’m still curious about the question of unidiomatic writing by experienced composers.

    Speaking from a French Horn player’s perspective, I can say that I’ve encountered a lot of unidiomatic writing for my instrument, including works from supposedly “reputable” composers. (I won’t name any of them since it might derail the discussion into something else.) Honestly, some of them were quite badly written for the instrument which seems to come from a general lack of knowledge of the instrument’s physical capabilities. But it’s something you encounter all the time with my particular instrument so you sort of get used to it after a while.

    The one issue that comes up over and over is endurance and range, which a lot of people don’t seem to understand about brass playing, and these issues are very problematic for the horn in particular. In orchestration books the horn is listed as a range of notes, but it typically doesn’t talk about how, if we play in the high register for a while, we get tired. Entrances on high notes tend to also be “slippy” and is always a risk in terms of accuracy, even among professional players.

    Idiomatically, if you’re want lots of high brass notes then its usually better to give it to the trumpet, or something with angular interval leaps are usually better for keyboard and string instruments. We can play fast, but if you want something ridiculously fast with some amount of accuracy, then other instruments tend to be better for that. Of course, there are always exceptions (even in the standard rep) and if you’re lucky enough to get a monster of a player they’ll play just about anything. For the typical average-skill player for myself though, I’m generally appreciative when the composer has these things at least in mind.

    What I’ve noticed for my instrument is that composers will either write something that’s way too hard, or sort of develop a contempt for the instrument itself and write something that’s way too easy, neither of which is very exciting. I don’t know, composers seem to love those screaming high-horn notes but they get pretty painful after a while and most of the time they end up sounding like a really awkward squeal. Well, if that’s the sound you want…

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  9. philmusic

    1 has too many
    Frank, this may not be on your topic but I think its related. I think you were looking for an “authentic” village experience when you discovered that the Village has devolved into a tourist trap serving the carriage trade or become a second home for the wealthy. Varese’s Greenwich Village is as gone as is Hemingway’s Paris. The geographical places remain of course, but their essence of discovery has not remained.

    Reply
  10. boriskin

    Frank’s musings on the long-held fear of relying on composing at an instrument reminded me of Copland’s reply to the often-asked question of whether he composed at the piano. Later in life, he said that he had often been a little embarrassed to admit when he was younger that he wrote at the piano … but that it was only when Stravinsky said that HE composed at the keyboard that Copland (and some of his contemporaries) felt that that somehow made it a little more acceptable to confess that they worked at an instrument.

    Michael Boriskin
    Copland House

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  11. philmusic

    “it seems completely antithetical to the physical reality of music to declare a prohibition on musical instruments during the compositional process.”

    I think in many cases it would be better for instrumentalists to delare a prohibition on composers during the performing process.

    Phil’s page

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  12. rtanaka

    I think in many cases it would be better for instrumentalists to delare a prohibition on composers during the performing process.

    I’ve known a couple of performers who turned to improvisation because they got tired of dealing with composer types. Some of the more extreme ones have even declared that the “composer” profession is in itself is obsolete compared to the democratic process of improvised musics. I don’t know if you were joking or not, but it does actually happen from time to time.

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  13. lawrence

    Whatever has happened in the past, in the early 21st century, most composition students rely on feedback from an instrument – usually a laptop – and almost none, in my experience, work directly from the imagination. At this point, a teacher who tells a student to write without recourse to an instrument is simply giving good advice, encouraging the student to exercise new creative muscles. Ideally, composers should have both approaches available to them at any given moment: composing with an instrument or composing by imagining the sound.

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  14. rnelson

    Ponder? Play?
    I tend to think of the “away from instrument” time as the “visionary” part of the process–where the “ideal” can be imagined–and then some combination of internal composition and instrument/computer-playback time as the hacking-out where that ideal is gradually reduced to some reality-based artifact. My sense is that what I can pull out away from the instrument is less likely to be influenced by my personal performance habits (both physical and mental), and then there’s a process of bringing it down to earth through playing and playbacks. A give-and-take between both approaches is healthy for me, with the balance swinging one way or another depending on the nature of the piece (improvisational? firmly notated?).

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  15. rzahab

    might depend on what answers some of these questions:

    is the notation a prescription for specific actions or an idea to realize however you can?

    Berg wrote beautifully for violin in his Concerto, but offers ossias throughout, especially for that nice canon at m. 78 in the second movement. it IS idiomatic in that the notes can be played, but with a single violin it doesn’t really sound like the idea it is: three distinct voices moving in layers, it sounds like a succession of chords of varying difficulty in execution. The Berg is still far more idiomatic than Schoenberg’s Concerto, which becomes more and more difficult the more the composer tries to write idiomatically – see m. 663 among many others. one imagines Adorno encouraging Schoenberg along the path of abnegating such acoustic delights as octave doublings (in an orchestra with triple woodwinds and eleven brass players).

    roger

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