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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