Excuse the Geek Out, Part 1

notesA couple of weeks ago in these august pixels, Alexandra Gardner asked “How much information does a composer working today attempt to convey to musicians through a written score?” Over the past few years, I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this question.

In discussing this issue with my composition students, I sometimes begin by asking why they want to notate their music in the first place. In this day and age, we have many different methods by which we may convey information about our music, and printed scores can be relatively inefficient and can be devoid of the sorts of details that are important to the piece itself. Electronic pieces may exist solely as recorded sound, without any accompanying visuals whatsoever. Many rock musicians and other performers from aural traditions prefer to learn songs through collaborative performance and memorization, obviating the need for a score when creating music for these small traveling ensembles. Those of us working in similar genres may choose to eschew written representations of our ideas.

The main reason to create a musical score is to convey our compositional ideas to other performing musicians. Of course, this postulation leads to the next question: What do we consider our compositional ideas? Composers such as John Luther Adams and Arvo Pärt often pen entire pieces without giving the performer even a single dynamic marking. While on the surface these sparsely notated scores might appear to prioritize the pitches and rhythms, in practice these composers create a situation whereby the performer’s articulation, phrasing, and dynamic choices become part of the spiritual nature of bringing the music to life, as these pieces maintain their identity throughout a wide range of varied performances. Other composers attempt to convey their explicit wishes at every moment in the score, utilizing copious attention to detail in order to display the dramatic impetus for their works. I generally find that the more abstract the form of the piece, the more score detail that is necessary in order for the performers to understand their roles within the whole.

In my own music, I generally attempt to create scores that contain enough detail so that I may email PDFs to new performers and they can then perform the composition in a way that will convey my vision for the music. When I feel strongly about how a sound should be articulated, I try to be specific enough so that someone reading the score can hear the intended result. Conversely, when I believe that there are multiple ways of performing a motive that all could work within the context, or when I want a specific type of sound but am not certain as to the best way to achieve that sound (e.g.: I’ve generally found that percussionists have creative solutions for mallet selection that work better in my pieces than my initial thoughts), I try to give the performer the freedom to choose their own preferred solution. In general, when a musician presents multiple ways to play a line while respecting what I’ve put on the page, I ask them which they prefer and we go from there. If it is not in the score, I try to remain open to different ideas as to how something can be performed. If it is in the score, it is generally there because I feel strongly about that particular moment.

There are two situations that I try to convince my students to avoid. First, I attempt to prevent them from over-notating. If a line appears fussy and unmusical, I might ask them to perform it for me. We’ll then spend a little time discussing whether or not they’ve conveyed all the information on the page in an attempt to work towards the essential aspects of that moment. Second, I ask them to put the information that they believe is important into the score itself. When they bring large swaths of music without any dynamics or articulation, I might posit extreme interpretations that performers could bring to bear, in hopes that the student will remain open to all the possibilities conveyed by their score.

Thinking about these issues has led me towards some changes in my own notational style and system. Next week, I’d like to continue this geek out in order to present some of my personal solutions to these questions.

3 thoughts on “Excuse the Geek Out, Part 1

  1. Joseph Eidson

    I tend to lean heavily towards the “control freak” in terms of my notation style. While my scores are not as intricately detailed as something by Crumb, I still tend to give lots of information besides specific pitches and rhythms. I am gradually learning how to let some of that control go and let the music be what it will, but old habits are sometimes hard to break. Looking forward to next week!

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  2. Cole T

    I like to think that my aesthetic preoccupations are sufficiently clear in my writing so that I can get away with putting less on the page. A competent performer, familiar with the particular idiom, should be able to pick up the suggestions in the music without having a lot of ink thrown at them.

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  3. chris s

    First off I welcome this geek out – but it does look poorly on this website if your post would be considered a “geek-out” – I mean we are performers and composer who do look at scores – and so do rock and pop musicians,they may have much more pressure to memorize their work but you’ll still see words with chord symbols given on their worksheets for practice. This is what we do. Also your advice is something I hope any freshman undergrad composer gets from his composition class because he or she will be working on this for years and revisiting throughout their compositional life.

    Also as a professor, I do hope you get performers into the classroom to perform some pieces – yes you have to rely on your judgement sans performers BUT you still never complete the score until the rehearsals and even the premiere are over.

    As for overnotating versus undernotating – it all depends on your intent as a composer. I have written stuff where I have said for the groupings of sixteenths that are shared back in forth of a duo, to let the performers determine how the articulation should work between them. They liked that. In an orchestral piece that would be a nightmare. And if you have a very very strong intent, then this may not work offering such freedom.

    I am glad you have students play what they wrote. Probably one of the first and most important lessons about notation are gained through that exercise.

    I hope you go deeper into this subject – ps a true geek out is if you posted a research paper based on Perle’s Twelve Tone Tonality and David Lewin’s work.

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