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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Ligeti Piano Concerto, Practice Notes to Self

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ligetiThe following are suggestions for practice in preparation for the flute and piccolo passages of (my favorite ensemble piece!) the Ligeti Piano Concerto. They are my own ideas, not authentic or especially original – except for one remark on the piccolo solo in the second movement that Ligeti gave me during the recording session with the ASKO Ensemble and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. I am also writing this for myself, should I lose my notes.

The harmonics in the first passage I finger an octave and a fifth below, mostly. The notes above G# I use special fingerings, not “real” harmonics. (See my entry When Is a Harmonic Not a Harmonic?) I give no fingerings for these notes, because they change from performance to performance, depending on the intonation of my colleagues and my own condition. In spite of the cross-rhythm going on, these passages should be played smoothly and evenly. I like to practice them like this:Ligeti_Piano1

The piccolo solo at “O”, though marked poco leggiero, should not be played staccato, the eighths should sound full. The lightness is in the rhythmic inflection.

In the second movement at “A”, Ligeti told me to forget the rests, the eighth notes should be longer than notated. I play this passage with very little vibrato, although this is a personal decision. Ligeti had no opinion on the matter. My goal is that the listener should not really know what instrument is playing – just some sort of haunting sound similar to the ocarinas that come in later. It is good not to play too quietly before the bassoon entry. The bassoon enters in its altissimo register, and can be very difficult to control.

In the third movement, the harmonics at “M” I finger two octaves below. For the high A, I add the G# key, and for that high B at 2 bars before “N”,  I don’t play a harmonic – just use the normal fingering.

In the fourth movement after “Y” the texture becomes very complex due to several rhythmic layers. You have eighth-note triplet movement (always with displaced accents in groups of 2 or 3) and sixteenth-note movement (always in accented groups of 2 or 3). The base tempo is quarter-note = 138, so I like to play around shifting between regular triplets at this speed, then playing the sixteenth note passages that have accents in groups of 3 as triplets, but at tempo 184. For example, the second bar of “Y”, starting the third beat, would look like this in my exercise:

Ligeti_Piano2

There are two clarifications to the part: 1)”DD”, the third note (A) should be a sixteenth-note. 2)There should be a rallentando from “EE”.

The fifth movement has That Lick at “C”. I find it useful to keep the C key down for the whole thing, even the beginning, since I have a B-foot. That works better than the gizmo-key in this situation, for me. I also leave out the trill key on the high B-flats, and use the following harmonics to facilitate fingering:

Ligeti_Piano3 

An important note on the rhythm. The time signatures in this piece function as a grid on which many networks of cross rhythms are laid. Therefore, in the indivudual parts, it is important to not interpret the rhythms in a traditional agogic manner; that is, with stronger beats on the 1 and 3, weaker beats on the 2 and 4. In other words, there is no traditional hierarchy of beats within a measure. Ligeti has carefully written accents where they should be. In light of this, it is also important that synchopations are not played as synchopations (with a playful “kick” on the off-beat). Your off-beat might not be an off-beat in the grand scheme of cross rhythms.

Clement Power, who will be conducting our next performance with Ensemble Musikfabrik on April 19th, has come up with the following exercises based on the opening of the piece, which I find quite useful:

sing1

sing2

I’d be curious about other’s experience with this piece, so please feel free to comment.

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Ligeti Hamburg Concerto (Horn Concerto)

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I thought it would be a nice segue from my last post on the True Range of the Flute to a work that, great as it is, has serious issues regarding range. Composers, if you have overstepped the bounds of the flute’s range, you are in good company.

Gyorgi Ligeti is just about my favorite composer. However, the fourth movement of his Hamburg Concerto poses serious problems. The first flute, playing flute, not piccolo, has to contend with this, at tempo dotted-quarter = 120:

Hamburgisches Konzert - Flöte 1-24B

I have heard this played on flute, the 1st player just ignoring the octave indication. If I’m not mistaken, this was the solution on the recording that was made with Ligeti. I did not work with Ligeti on this piece, but have played under conductors who have experience with the piece. What I did was play this passage on piccolo, but that poses another problem later on since there is no time to change back to flute. Our solution was this: 1st player plays piccolo until “l”, leaving out low D-flats and E-flats (they are doubled anyway). Have the 2nd flute play “l” through “m” while 1st changes to flute, then 1st resumes playing at “m”.

Earlier on in this movement, the 1st player has the following passage. The Notes after “V” are possible, but when played on flute, it throws the dynamic balance of the ensemble totally off:

Hamburgisches Konzert - Flöte 1-2(1)3A

I solved it by changing to piccolo at “U”. The last time I played it, I thought “what the hey”, and just played from the beginning of the movement on piccolo (transposing the written part down an octave, of course). It makes for better dynamics at “T” (not that it is impossible on flute). The only note you have to leave out is the B in the third bar of “T”. I don’t present this as an authentic or brilliant solution, it was just a whim and the conductor went with it.

I hope this helps future flutists working on this cool piece (including myself, just so I remember what we did)! If you know of other solutions, I am all ears.

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