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.

5 thoughts on “Rules to Live By

  1. rubyfulton

    dynamics… this is a tricky subject. i find it curious that a piece without specific (and changing) dynamic markings is considered unrefined – this is an attitude i have encountered several times recently. i like to think in terms of “amount of activity” as shaping the dynamics naturally – e.g. if it’s an orchestra piece and the whole orchestra is playing, it’s really loud. if only one or two people are playing, it’s much softer. i haven’t gotten a really warm reaction to this philosophy though! there seems to be a tendency to assume the composer is lazy or unthoughtful if the score isn’t heavily marked with instructions, especially dynamic markings.

    sorry if this did not directly respond to the original post – thanks for all this stuff to think about, colin.

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  2. tedthetrumpet

    I’m familiar with the word ‘diegetic’ in the context of film music, but… what do you mean here by ‘diegetic’ music?

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  3. colin holter

    Ruby: That’s a contentious topic; my impression is that most composers these days are taught to err on the side of dynamic specificity, which is a double-edged sword at best. Players have often asked me for greater detail in terms of dynamics, but if you assume that dynamics indicate a volume level rather than a level of physical vigor, for instance, that’s a decision that has take things like ensemble size, performance space, etc. into account. Dynamics always seem like the first thing to get adjusted around in rehearsal anyway, so I think contextual flexibility is probably optimal. I would tend to agree with you that there isn’t necessarily much to be gained by prescribing dynamics too rigidly or too often (I think that’s what you’re driving at).

    Ted: I use “diegetic” to mean music conceived rhetorically, as opposed to mimetic music, which functions according to immanent principles–i.e., music that “tells” vs. music that “shows.” As a dichotomy this is half-assed and potentially quite specious, but I like to think in these terms because I try to come up with a relationship between the mimetic and the diegetic when I compose.

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  4. philmusic

    For me the question is not just about the musical space a work dwells in but also about the time it dwells there. There are many successful works where a single texture is featured and maintained. Among those works, and the ones that I like the best, are the ones that have just the “right” length for the musical ideas to coalesce. At least for me.

    I also know that that “point of rightness” is different for everyone.

    Phil Fried

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