The Strength of Flexibility

Yesterday I went to a Southern Indian restaurant and ordered the thali special. When the array of tiny dishes arrived, I randomly sampled whatever entrée caught my fancy: poriyal, koottu, rasam, kuzhambu, sambaar. My spoon kept indiscriminately plate-hopping until I was completely stuffed. After this satisfyingly option-loaded meal, my inner-composer began thinking about ways to inject more of this type of flexibility into my music.

I’ve never really been one of those composers who insist upon micromanaging every minute detail of their work. Granted, during a dress rehearsal I once instructed a pianist to refrain from taking his hands away from the keyboard during pauses in the music, but that was my only comment. Lately I’ve been creating multiple versions of pieces. For example, a piano solo that can be performed with one or two percussionists, with a certain amount of adaptability as far as instrumentation—if a set of crotales isn’t available, use a glockenspiel or omit the part altogether. It’s been my experience that the more reasonable alternatives you offer to performers and presenters, the greater the likelihood of repeat performances. That said, my artistic interest in versatility may have practical side effects. It’s common practice to remix a song to better suit different contexts—nightclub, radio, video, ring tone. So tweaking music performed from the printed page to fit a particular setting should happen more often than it does. But how can we further embed malleability inside our music?

Following that lunchtime thali model, smaller portions seem like a good idea, combined with a good amount of interchangeability, i.e. everything has to go well with basmati rice. Not just shorter compositions, period, end of sentence. I’m thinking more along the lines of creating sonic Lego pieces—petite, self-contained modules that work on their own accord, musically, and in different combinations, in addition to contributing to a greater whole. Like Brian Ferneyhough’s Superscriptio, which opens his Carceri d‚Invenzione cycle, or John Cage’s Ryoanji where parts for oboe, flute, trombone, contrabass, and voice can perform solo or in any combination with the obbligato percussion part, there are many existing examples from Earl Brown to James Saunders.

I was first inspired by James Saunders when I heard Like wool, his 17-second orchestra piece. The composition beguiles its own medium as Bruckner spins in his grave. In his #[unassigned] series, Saunders seems to be striving for the precise flexibility that I had in mind yesterday. Each piece is constructed from a growing nexus of modules, custom designed for a single performance. Anyone else out there mining the rich possibilities which various modes of flexibility may have to offer modern composition?

2 thoughts on “The Strength of Flexibility

  1. mdwcomposer

    In a more limited way, I’ve used a technique where in certain sections of a piece, each musician is given two lines to play, and must choose whether to play the top or bottom line – choices can be made ahead of time or during the performance. Since the pieces where I’ve used that technique are short, some of the times when they’ve been performed they get done more than once on the same concert: back-to-back, separated by other pieces or in one case, separated by a reading. My initial impetus for the technique was to heighten the difference between a recording (fewer variables) and a live performance (more variables).

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  2. jbunch

    It seems to me that in the past, the versatility, as you call it, or the malleability was the child of the concept that hovered on top of the piece, that is, its non-linearity, or brevity was less of a result of convenience than a result of the principle message, or of a musical impasse (sp?) of some sort.

    Webern’s music was short, but because he figured – “well, I’ve already used all 12 notes, now what?” I’m not completely sure about the Cage, but perhaps it was a result of wanting to impersonalize “Ryoanji”, to cut it free somehow from the concert tradition. Admittedly, I don’t know for sure. Maybe he wanted to make more money or something.

    Point being, is the kind of versatility we are discussing here like making a mini-van with retractable seats? Something that is useful for the listener, but not radiating from the concerns of the music? Although, maybe it’s more interesting to make music that responds to that aspect of our culture, why not?

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