Watch Your Language
The use of language in musical scores has been something of an idée fixe these days. It inevitably comes up whenever I talk to someone about music, and even during on-stage conversations for which I’m only in the audience.
In a recent conversation I had with Gabriela Lena Frank (which you will be able to read on NewMusicBox on or after April 1), she talked about how she was able to convince her publisher to include comments in her scores giving players greater detail about the sound she was after in her music, e.g. asking members of a string orchestra to make their instruments sound like Peruvian charangos. In a pre-concert discussion between the conductor Philip Brunelle and composer Dominick Argento I attended in Washington, D.C., Brunelle gushed about how Argento’s scores were filled with arcane directions, all in Italian, which made perfect musical sense once you knew what the words meant.
Once upon a time, Italian was used by composers all over the world to relay tempo and expression indications in musical scores. And almost everyone still has a basic conception of the meaning of words like adagio, presto, sforzando, pizzicato, etc. At some point in the 19th century, some German composers got the nationalist idea that their written music should only contain words from their own language, and words like langsam replaced adagio in their scores. Composers from all over the world followed suit, replacing those once ubiquitous Italian words with terms from their mother tongues. Growing up I thought it was preposterous to include foreign language words in my music, so following the example of American composer-heroes from earlier in the 20th century, I only used English. This, of course, works as long as the musicians playing your music can read English, which is not completely universal but a reasonable fail safe since it’s the world’s most common second language.
Most often, though, I try to avoid any verbal indicators on the score whatsoever and merely include metronome markings, dynamic indications, and an occasional articulation. But even something as abstract as a metronome marking is often charged with hidden subtexts. In a panel with the members of The Calder Quartet, Christopher Rouse admitted that he put an unplayable metronome marking on one of the movements of his First String Quartet knowing it would get musicians to play the music faster than they would have if he put the speed he wanted them to play at. A young composer I met during my residency at the Cornish School in Seattle last month wrote a very chromatic chamber piece using a key signature with loads of sharps that she then kept neutralizing with natural signs and claimed that by doing so she was able to create more tension in the performance.
So, given that your intention is hopefully not 100 percent worked out, since whatever someone plays will and should have an element of them in it as well as you, what is the best way to communicate your intention?