Harder Than It Looks

Last week I had a very interesting conversation with another composer that arose from a comment he made about having to be careful that his music doesn’t look easier than it really is. Given that this was an extremely successful composer whose music doesn’t ever sound “easy” to me, I was very surprised to learn that this has been a concern of his.

Backing up for a moment, I would like to direct your attention to this excellent manifesto on notation which, despite its tongue in cheekiness, is pretty much spot on in the message for composers to make their notation as clear and simple as possible for musicians. For the record, I do believe that there are exceptions to the statement that notation is not art. However, in such cases it is probably sensible to loosen up expectations around accuracy of reproduction.

At any rate, the “simple is better” approach can occasionally backfire—sometimes a score can look so straightforward on the page that the musicians believe the piece will be a snap to put together. That is, until it’s not, and by then it might be dangerously close to performance time, resulting in maybe not the best possible performance. This sort of thing used to happen to me fairly often, because sometimes my scores do appear as if they will be easy to perform at first glance. It was frustrating, because at one level I didn’t want to be “that composer” who says things to musicians like, “You know you guys, my music is really hard. It might not look like it, but you are gonna have to practice this stuff. Seriously.” Because that’s obnoxious. On the other hand, I wanted to make sure that the music received the attention and rehearsal time it deserved. Eventually I did figure out how to communicate my concerns without sounding like a jerk, which did help, and now it isn’t really a problem at all.

This is why I was so interested in talking with this other composer—to find out how he reconciled the need to be as clear in his musical communication as possible without making his music look so easy that an ensemble would make assumptions about the time and effort needed to prepare it. He made three important points:

1. That “fixing” the issue by making the notation look more complicated than it needs to be is not the answer.

2. As his music was performed more frequently and as more and more musicians became familiar with his compositional voice, he received better performances on a more consistent basis. People knew what they were getting into.

3. Experienced musicians know that the first glance at a score is just that—a quick impression, and not necessarily reality. You only discover reality by actually playing the music.

Many performers have said that the music they enjoy playing most has well-crafted, playable individual parts, yet makes virtuosic demands on the ensemble as a whole. And indeed, some of the most wonderful music around looks uncomplicated on the page but presents challenges of all sorts in the execution—take the works of John Luther Adams, Kyle Gann, Eve Beglarian, or even Chris Theofanidis. Believe me, I have spent many delightful hours swimming in the enormous and beautiful scores of George Crumb and Sylvano Bussotti, but ultimately the power of music that blows your mind is not about how it looks written down.

2 thoughts on “Harder Than It Looks

  1. MarkNGrant

    Well said. Yes, that old bugaboo, “Augenmusik.” It can be a snare and a delusion. The conductor John Mauceri once told me in an interview that the scores of the composer-arranger Robert Russell Bennett looked “simple” on the page but always sounded fuller than they read to the eye.

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  2. Colin Holter

    I agree.

    Having said that:

    The best axiom I ever heard on this topic is that notation should be as simple as possible and no simpler – which might ultimately mean that it’s very complex! “Augenmusik,” I think, is kind of the “welfare queen” of new music – it’s an ideological reframing that assumes complex notation a) is so common as to present a genuine across-the-board problem in contemporary music and b) emerges from very crude aesthetic and professional calculations on the part of the composer. Yes, if lots of composers were rushing to divorce themselves from the act of performance when embarking on their zany notational strategies, that would be bad news (especially for those composers themselves!) – but my experience in the last 10 years or so has been that most of my peers who traffic in striking-looking notations do so precisely because they want to get closer to the poetics and immediate physicality of music-making.

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