On Having Never Written A Unison

I had a musical first this week: I wrote a unison passage for seven players. As a one-to-a-part prone composer, that manuscript page sure looked strange staring back up at me—so rigid and fixed, like those orchestra scores I studied in graduate school. I’m not yet sure how gratifying this experience was or will be for my inner-artist. Personally, I usually enjoy a certain amount of ambiguity when it comes to a composition’s final outcome, whether it involves uncoordinated parts or leaving decisions regarding dynamics, articulation, and phrasing up to performers’ discretion. For me, providing more options to the musicians creates a situation of engagement that somehow translates during performance—even if it’s the simple tension that the piece will sound a little different this particular time around. I’ve attended performances where crucial cues were missed, mistakes were made, etc., and I’m usually fine with it, as long as the musicians save face and pretend that the piece is supposed to sound exactly how they’re performing it at that moment. Besides, I’m the only person in the audience with the ability to recognize if my train wreck is sounding too much like a car accident instead.

But now, with this totally synchronized unison completely scored out, I know exactly what I’m going to get—not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m conversant enough to realize that most music is fixed by standard notation, complete with time signature, tempo indication, etc. But it’s this inflexibility of coordinated notation, subdivided beats, and the sense that everything is held together so resiliently, that keeps me tethered to working exclusively with chamber groups and soloists. I could only imagine a conductor’s reaction upon laying his or her eyes on one of my scores—yes, I make “scores” for uncoordinated sets of parts. They’re pretty much useless documents, until someone asks you to send them a score for a piece—mine come with the disclaimer that more details are to be found in each individual part. Sometimes it’s just too hard to fit the clarinet performance instruction of “badger boy eats paper clips” into the score when a lot of other things are going on. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think any of my chamber pieces have been performed with a conductor, something that would definitely make me cringe. But this unison passage might change my conductor-less stasis.

I guess whenever you do something new as an artist, it opens a can of worms stuffed with a lot of other new things. Obviously, this is a good thing, even if failure seems eminent. Who knows, this long unison passage might eventually lead to something rash, like throwing out the electric pencil sharpener, buying some computer notation software, and scoring rhythm via conventional means. Hey, epiphanies happen. So has anyone else out there been venturing out on new artistic limbs recently? Please share a story or two about creating something outside of your typical purview and the new directions it’s taken you.

5 thoughts on “On Having Never Written A Unison

  1. pgblu

    cryptic remark about unison
    All music potentially contains ambiguity. Just now it’s a different sort of ambiguity than what you’re used to producing. Less obviously ambiguous, but for that all the more pernicious.

    Reply
  2. davidcoll

    first possibly recognizable quote..
    yesterday decided to add a quote for the first time that i think will be recognizable, that is, if there’s someone in the audience that is very knowledgeable of french marxist workers songs from the 30′s i suppose….there’s always a chance…

    Reply
  3. cpeck

    Simple scores or clearly notated actions can free the performer to experience the moment more authentically without being bound to the responsibility of filling in too many indeterminate elements.

    I’ve been getting interested in unison too, but this is springing out of my experience of the sometimes frustrating limitations of ensemble free improvisation.

    Reply
  4. jbunch

    You know, people have been studiously avoiding a clear pulse, octave doublings, and what not since Schönberg. That music is not bad, but it sounds to me that you are responding to a kind of musical ideology. A unison is not a simple thing. If it is – as you say – an exceptional gesture in your œuvre, then it will be (to Nordschow enthusiasts) a dramatic one as well. Counter-ideological gestures always prompt the question. The orchestrational meaning of the unison is significant because music is an art for the ears as well as for the mind – its sensuousness should not be depleted by its aesthetic rigor or vice versa. A Unison could become a heterophony like in Art Jarvinen’s work The Vultures Garden which I like very much.

    Reply
  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    The Vultures Garden, one of my faves!

    And, for sheer surprise, there’s that moment in Bach’s Passion when out of all the clatter of counterpoint comes “Ich bin Gottes Sohn” in unisons and octaves.

    Dennis

    Reply

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