Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say

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This is an imaginary passage I have composed that has annoying and confusing articulation marks.

If you are not a wind player, the fact that this is annoying may puzzle you. It’s like this: as a wind player, from the very beginning you receive strict instructions on the use of the tongue. If there is no slur mark over a note, you initiate the note with the tongue, if it is under a slur mark, you don’t. Simple as that, a digital, on off situation. The passage above, as written, contains too many possibilities for easy reading. It involves guesswork, and that involves time. In some cases, a composer may want to leave the details of articulation up to the player, and that is fine. I enjoy 18th Century repertoire for this reason, and it is perhaps worthwhile for composers to familiarize themselves with what J. J.  Quantz has to say about the possibilities of articulation in his treatise On Playing the Flute.  (If for nothing else than to understand the weight of history that flutists bear.)

Time spent on interpretive decisions is interesting time.
Time spent on guesswork is not.

This is the 21st Century, and when I see music that is exactly notated, I want to play it exactly, and I want to know what it is I have to say, and how I should say it. Because that is what articulation is all about: how you pronounce your phrase. I want to think that the composer has put some thought into this, as I am putting some practice time into his or her piece.

And, dear composers, please don’t say about a slur: “oh, it’s just a phrase mark.” Really? I am a musician, I make phrases for a living. I don’t need to be told to make one. But I do need to know when to use my tongue and when to hold it. And please don’t just say, “oh, play that legato.” It doesn’t answer my question because I can articulate legato as well as slur something legato. Which should I do? Do you really care?

So if I haven’t pissed you off yet and you really want to see the possibilities for articulating the above passage, here they are.

The first two staccato B-flats are probably meant to be played:

but perhaps the composer meant:

I would really like to be sure.

Now, the two Es, the second one having a staccato, could be played:

But did the composer mean:

well, maybe not, but how can I be sure? So I interrupt practice to contact him or her, or interrupt the rehearsal time to ask, or take time out of the rehearsal break (in which I have twenty other things to get done.)

Several years ago I was working intensely on solo improvisation. I kept a notebook with comments on segments I had recorded. The words SAY SOMETHING DAMMIT were written in block notes at one point. When you listen to music, if it articulates nothing, it says nothing.

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Composing Dynamics

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In composition workshops, the question sometimes arises: in an ensemble or orchestral situation, how does one write dynamics for individual instruments? For example, if you want a balanced forte among winds and brass, does one write forte for the winds (assuming they are not playing in the altissimo register) but mezzo forte for the brass? Or does one just write forte for all instruments and expect the musicians (or conductor) to balance things out?

In spite of the wonderful composers (Ligeti among them) who have taken trouble to relativize dynamics for us, I would say: Write what you want to hear, not what you think we can play. Trust me. Let us do the musical work (or at least give the conductor something to do 🙂 ).

Other considerations: instrument building and playing techniques change over time. Abilities among players vary considerably. I can think of flute players who can drown out a brass section. If I were one of them, I would feel patronized by relative dynamics. Sadly, I am not, but I still feel sometimes annoyed by assumptions made by composers. For example, some composers assume a flute tone in the 3rd octave will be loud, so he or she will write pp for every passage in that register. Sometimes it’s obvious that is going on, sometimes it isn’t. What to do? Do you want your future performers spending their rehearsal time on your piece arguing with each other or putting your piece together?

This bears repeating:

Write what you want to hear, not what you think we can play.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

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The True Range of the C Flute

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Back in the USSR, when information was really suppressed, many people were hungry for the truth. Now governments hide the truth from us under a deluge of information. I think composers suffer from this deluge, but it is not a government conspiracy.

The true range of the concert C flute is a matter of public domain, published in text books, on the internet, and God knows where else as a cold, hard fact. It is neither a state secret nor rocket science. Yet why is it ignored?

Sometimes I can understand why. We often work with composers of electronic music who transfer their sound world into “scores” and leave the instrumentation up to us. There are also arrangers who don’t sweat the details of register, and tell me up-front that I am free to choose which size flute I want to use when. That’s cool.

But when that’s not the case, how to bring this issue out from under the deluge information? I considered several options. Swear words, Russell Brand revolutionary rhetoric, sexing-up – what can I do to get your attention?

Here is my first attempt. Download it here as a PDF, or view it here. Suggestions are welcome, but please keep it family-friendly.

True_Range

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