Neatness Counts: Bucking Trends in Orchestra Notation

Neatness Counts: Bucking Trends in Orchestra Notation

Bill Holab started his lecture on making exceptional scores and parts by making fun of the notation of Brian Ferneyhough—or at least singling it out as what not to do. Lines run into each other, lots of notes are crammed into a little space, and there are extraneous lines. Of course, you could say that a Ferneyhough score is graphically a work of art in and of itself, or that part of its value is that it confounds and challenges and seeks its own special way to obliterate or subvert the rhythmic grid. But it certainly doesn’t conform to a standard of what is preferable in music notation, and Holab made it clear right off the bat that as an engraver he works to make the act of reading music as simple and easy as possible.

Now, it’s clear that Holab is an engraver at the very top of his craft. He works for all the major publishing companies and also represents self-published composers, and his lectures were extremely useful. However, the more he spoke, the more I thought about the tenuous relationship between composers and orchestras.

Holab made another example of a Golijov clarinet concerto. There are sections where the time signature changes to reflect that a dotted-eighth or double-dotted-eighth gets the beat. So, originally, there would be a change from 3/4 to 2/6 or 4/12 or something like that. Adès does this kind of thing as well. Holab said that he rebarred this section so that the bottom note of the time signature was written as the note value itself, instead of the number representing that value. The clarinet player liked it much better, he said. This seemed to be validation enough, even though Golijov himself liked it better the way he wrote it.

Granted, this is a really small point, and this particular change didn’t perceptibly alter the sounding result of the music, only the way it looked on the page, but this kind of attitude has resounding implications. Holab had an extremely practical point of view about the whole thing—”This is a concerto. What orchestral player is actually going to practice a concerto?”

Here is where I draw the line. I don’t want to write music for people who feel that they are above practicing it. And I don’t care if it’s a “concerto” or anything else—how else can it be a challenging, interesting piece of music if it doesn’t require a little bit of work—technical or conceptual—from the performer?

Along these lines, we also had a wonderful seminar with two percussionists from the Minnesota Orchestra, Brian Mount and Kevin Watkins. These guys were extremely informative and good-natured in their criticism of our difficult percussion parts (admittedly, unnecessarily difficult in many cases). They also made it clear several times that they wanted to avoid creating an environment that was limiting for a composer, and they clearly did really practice our parts—a lot. This was, of course, totally great to see. Heartwarming, really.

One of the composers called for the timpanist to hit the copper bell of the drum, and there was massive resistance to this idea from the percussionists. “I didn’t do it for John Corigliano, I’m not gong to do it for you,” the timpanist was relayed as having said. I understand this mentality, given the price of the drum you’re asking a professional to play in an unconventional, potentially damaging way. However, some string players don’t like to play col legno and some piano technicians won’t let you prepare the piano or touch the strings either. Taking that mentality a bit further, some brass players don’t like to play extended high passages, some bass clarinet players don’t like to play high notes at all, some violin players don’t like to count many bars of rest, lots of classical musicians don’t like playing extremely repetitive music… the list could go on forever. You could say these are unfair comparisons, but one of the percussionists also compared the timpani request to asking a harp player to stand up and kick the harp. The question is: as a composer, where do you draw the line?

By the way, I wouldn’t want to cause any timpanist to feel like he or she is damaging their instrument. But it’s true that Adès calls for this technique in Asyla, and I’d love to know how timpanists deal with this problem. Maybe they use an old beat-up set of timpani. Maybe that should be a reasonable request.

There’s an idea that you need to learn all the rules before you break them. People revert to that adage all the time in music, but let’s think about it for a second. Really? All the rules? Like, the rules that tell you that above all else you must print orchestral parts on 9’x12′ paper? Or that you shouldn’t draw any extraneous lines on a score, or use unconventional time signatures, or ever put text in a box on your score? The rules never really end. Furthermore, obsessing over a mastery of “the rules” can be a great way to put off coming up with some actual original ideas.

You could argue that the two can easily go hand-in-hand, or that our standardized notation practice can accommodate any and all musical ideas and it is thus our responsibility to make it as easy as possible for our performers. And maybe theoretically you would be right. But at the end of Holab’s seminar, a composer who has been auditing all our seminars here at the Institute raised his hand and asked, “So, is it better to write a piece that isn’t difficult?” And he was asking this question with complete sincerity, as if the answer would actually determine the music he then created. This to me is backwards, and proof that the standardization of orchestral and notational practice can, if a composer isn’t careful, hold back musical creativity.

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7 thoughts on “Neatness Counts: Bucking Trends in Orchestra Notation

  1. philmusic

    At this time I am aware of several different ways of notating- lets call them advanced techniques- for instruments. Some are idiosyncratic so that the composers who use them prefer to stick with the same performers who know their style over and over again. Quite a few of these actually. Also many college new music ensembles offer a a composer not only a lot of practice time but also a lot of supervision.

    How would this translate into a big band situation like the MN Orchestra?

    Given enough time and rehearsal the Minnesota Orchestra, or any major professional orchestra for that matter can pretty much can learn anything. Time–that is the fact. Every moment spent haggling over notation method means less rehearsal/practice time.

    Observing the conventions of writing for orchestra is not the same as composing conventional music.

    Phil Fried

  2. colin holter

    Great post – amen, brother. As Phil says, though, there’s an equation that has to be considered when deciding how to notate a piece; one of the terms in that equation is how badly you want to notate in an expressive and meaningful way, and another is how much time you want to spend arguing with the players about notation. At a certain point you may decide that the headache of dealing with performers – and I love performers, but sometimes they can be just as childish and stubborn as us – outweighs the creative windfall of notational communication. And I have to salute your even-handedness – I would have walked out on hearing Ferneyhough mocked for his complex notation. When you’re writing for Harry Sparnaay and Irvine Arditti, though, you can do that kind of thing without having to take a lot of guff.

    Big thanks to you and Justin Merritt for keeping us up-to-date on the composer institute, by the way – I wish I could be there for it.

  3. David

    Simplicity & Familiarity
    If you’re writing music that you want other people to perform and rehearsal time is limited it will be a good idea to notate your music in a manner the performers find comfortable. Members of an orchestra see a steady stream (sometimes a torrent) of 19th century music and most of them have been reading such music since they were barely past infancy.

    A rational composer will want the players to spend as much time as possible on the music itself, not scratching their heads wondering what was meant. This means that if you can notate your ideas with conventional formulae you should do so.

    And if you can’t do so, you should modify convention only as much as necessary (i.e. as little as possible), with great simplicity and consistency. And provide easy to understand explanations. And, just like kindergarten, neatness does count – a lot. (And a second proofreading never hurt either.)

    David Ocker

  4. Ted Hearne

    Yes, of course you’re right David that neatness counts, and Phil, of course you’re right that these giant professional ensembles have no rehearsal time. But it’s not just about notation, it’s about an experimental spirit in general. Of course it is impractical and a recipe for disaster to throw a very messy score in front of an orchestra and expect them to spend all the rehearsal time sorting everything out.

    But there is genuine creativity in some notational choices, and it is not stupid to think that new or even confounding notation can breed a new and awesome way of approaching the music. And this attitude doesn’t just stop at notation – it extends into playing techniques, and rhythmic sense, and all sorts of other things. I don’t like the idea that our most important job is to make performers as happy as possible, to write them all these “well-crafted” lines that are as idiomatic as necessary. Yes, if we do that, they will understand best what we mean and be most comfortable playing it.

    But will it be interesting music? Maybe. Personally I feel like my music is most successful when there is some resistance between the performers and the music; something that causes them to push against their knowledge of what is most comfortable, to dig a little bit into the unknown. So yes, it is important to respect notation – and all musical conventions – to a certain extent, but too much can easily lead to an environment where all resistance is frowned upon. And that’s dangerous.

  5. rtanaka

    So yes, it is important to respect notation – and all musical conventions – to a certain extent, but too much can easily lead to an environment where all resistance is frowned upon.

    I find it interesting that you equate experimentalism with resistance because the two things have nothing to do with each other. If think you have a ground-breaking idea, then the logical thing to do would ensure that your ideas get across to the audience in the smoothest possible manner. Tensions between the composer and performer tends to inhibit that more than anything.

    If you’re doing any sort of experimentation, it’s bound to come with a lot of failures. Personally I think it’s best to do these experiments in the practice room or during the compositional process so by the time rehearsal rolls around the piece would have something to show for itself. Keep in mind that the rehearsal is the final step before the actual concert, so if you’re still trying to hatch new ideas at that point, it’ll probably be too late.

    (Saariaho and Gubaidulina are two composers who manages to get unusual and non-idiomatic sounds while still keeping their notation clear and reasonable. That little extra effort can make a big difference.)

  6. William Osborne

    It’s interesting to look at what orchestras cost per hour. The Minnesota Orchestra yearly budget is 30 million dollars. Most orchestras rehearse and perform for about 21 hours per week. (I calculated five 3 hours rehearsals and three 2 hour concerts for a total of 21 hours per week.) For a 45 week season that comes to 945 hours. Divide that into 30 million and it comes out to $31,746 per hour, or $549 per minute.

    If the orchestra had to take even an extra five minutes because of your notation, that would cost $2745. The top five orchestras have budgets much higher. An extra five minutes would cost about nine or ten grand.

    I am very interesting in exploring new types of notation that will allow for a much deeper integration of music, words, and theater. That’s why I don’t write opera.

    William Osborne


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