The Psychological Ramifications of Music Notation
I spent the last couple of weeks re-notating a piece of music whose performance history thus far has left me unsatisfied in the hopes that the revised version will eventually yield a reading that is more in keeping with what I originally had in mind. The process of doing this rather time-consuming task (despite being aided by music notation software) has made me think about the aspects of notation that are designed to simply tell you what things should sound like versus notational schemes that allow you to always get the sound you want.
When I was much younger I was very intrigued by the Polish composers of the 1960s who used indeterminate notations in order to get very specific sounds, e.g. a common conceit at the time was to have a notehead in the shape of an arrow pointing upward or downward which signified the highest or lowest note possible. When such a notation is given to a group of string players or a chorus, the result is invariably a tone cluster at one of the registral extremes, since everyone will interpret what their limit is in a slightly different way. But when such a notation is given to a pianist, the result is the exact same note (unless, perchance, someone is performing the music on one of those super cool Bösendorfer pianos with extra bass notes). Which begs the question: if the result is always the same, why use indeterminate notation? Well, it is much easier to sight-read a highest or lowest note request than a ton of ledger lines. And it is also much easier to get an effective tone cluster from a chorus by allowing for random deviance rather than hoping individuals are able to each hit a different note a semitone apart.
What I did, however, had nothing to do with indeterminacy, but rather with speed. Christopher Rouse is notorious for writing metronome markings that are way faster than what he expects to get, gambling on the fact that if he writes exactly what he wants he’ll wind up getting something slower. So I took a partial cue from him. Wanting something very fast, I had originally written a chain of quarter notes with an ungodly metronome marking of quarter = 666 (long story) thinking that it would be easier to read a chain of notes written without a bunch of beams over them. But a metronome marking is easy to ignore completely, especially one that’s so clearly impractical. And as bad luck would have it, I got a performance that was, ironically, quite slow. So I changed the whole thing to sixteenth notes, which immediately shout out “play this fast” from the page. And while it will probably never be quite up to tempo—the 666 thing was a bit of humorous psychological gambit to get folks to play as fast as they possibly can—it should at least never drag.
But all this opens up a potentially even larger question. Are there things we do as composers in how we notate our music that unwittingly sabotage performances? Sometimes what we think makes something easier to read actually makes it harder. And, conversely, are we sometimes too devoted to the specific way something looks on the page even when a perhaps less visually attractive realization that translates into the same result is actually a better guarantee to get the desired result?