Rules to Live By
Carl Stone’s report on the very loud SFEMF got me thinking about dynamics and loudness—is it a compositional parameter I’ve overlooked? Is it a parameter I’ve overvalued? Does it have to be a parameter at all? When I was concerned with writing gestural, mimetic music, I tried to use dynamics as a sort of narrative buttress, plotting a curve of markings the length of the piece. Now that I’m more attracted to textural, diegetic music, dynamics have gone by the wayside a bit, and I think less about parameters like “tempo,” “register,” and “loudness” (not to conflate the latter with written dynamics) and more about parameters like “iconicity,” “intelligibility,” and “Staxiness.” That’s just how I’m living.
Pieces that are unrelentingly loud (or, for that matter, ceaselessly quiet) send a message that goes beyond their musical immanent arguments. For a long time I was turned off by works of restricted ambitus in any of those conventional serial parameters I mentioned above—pieces that live entirely within a single octave, or pieces that are all loud all the time. But to the extent that these pieces can suffer from a poverty of means of the sort that undergraduate composers are sternly warned against, they can also quickly achieve a more characteristic identity; perhaps severe restrictions like this lend themselves to diegetic pieces because they function analogously to modes of rhetoric without (necessarily) pointing the listener to an affective shortcut.
Take, for instance, a piece for a solo stringed instrument: The sound possibilities of such a piece are remarkably manifold; a wide range of dynamics, timbres, pitches, and gestural/phrasal configurations are available. Mutes, multiple bows, amplification, and many other out-of-the-ordinary modifications can be brought to bear. But what’s achieved by exhausting all of these possibilities in a single work? Maybe the result will be an epic, comprehensive magnum opus, a modern-day Well-Tempered Clavier. My instinct, however, would be to draw a perimeter around the resources, such as a particular dynamic range, to which the piece will have access. This way, the piece might acquire an identity that is, if not stronger, at least more immediately present than a piece that uses every inch of conceivable headroom.