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.