Tempo, Where’s the Hurry?

In my last entry, I made some sarcastic remarks about the tempo in Berio’s Sequenza for flute being too fast. Now with genuine curiosity, I would like to probe composers’ psyche in the hopes that it will reveal why given tempi are often too fast. I will try not to make this a rant.

Given today’s technology, it is not surprising that computer generated scores can churn out notes at a certain tempo that sounds “correct” when electronically reproduced. Then when produced with actual living, breathing creatures playing mechanical objects, the composer realizes that compromises or adjustments to tempo have to be made. That is understandable.  However, I  encounter this phenomenon with pre-technological pieces as well as contemporary ones that were composed away from the computer.

The problems I see when a tempo is too fast:

  • Variations in division of the beat are poorly perceivable. Personally, I like my quintuplets to sound like quintuplets, and be discernible from sextuplets or sixteenth-notes.
  • Variations in pitch are poorly perceivable. Not only are fingering and lipping microtones difficult at high speeds, but can you really tell in a blur of notes if I play an F or an F a sixth-tone high? Should I really bother? [When I (and probably most flute players) get excited about a loud, fast passage, my F, and all the surrounding notes,  will be a sixth tone higher whether I like it or not.]
  • Variations in articulation are poorly perceivable. If inflections of long and short are important, I would appreciate time to produce them and to make sure the audience has time to capture them.

Sometimes I am annoyed when I point out these things to a composer, and the response is: “Oh, that is the tempo you strive for, the ideal tempo.” Well, do I really strive for that tempo (which I can achieve in some cases) and sacrifice the musical details? If you know me already from reading my blog, I am at my worst when presented with conflicting information. I do appreciate conflict as a positive creative force, but do not appreciate it when it is a result of artistic laziness.

But I am a nice person, and cannot believe that the majority of composers are lazy. So what is going on?

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2 thoughts on “Tempo, Where’s the Hurry?

  1. Hi Helen and thanks for all your interesting writing and posts on this blog! This is a huge question and one that I struggled with for years as a composer before I started to equally struggle with it as a conductor and performer.

    I think that – unfortunately – there is some laziness at play in much of what you talk about. There are also, though, a number of things working against today’s composers. One of these is that we tend to expect such specific tempo markings at all.

    For example, if I asked you: “Okay, so what tempo do you play the Berio Sequenza at?” We’d quickly realise this is not a question with a single answer. You’d play it differently based on the acoustic quality of the space you’re in, the size of the audience, and probably even things like the temperature. The idea that a piece has a “correct” tempo then, is flawed, but perhaps even more subversively, one related to recordings (and more recently notation programmes). Recordings, though, almost always favour/reward faster tempi. Microphones placed in the perfect position mean we can hear the details and execution of a performance more precisely/with more detail than we ever would in a live room. Headphones mean those sounds are even closer/more present. And, of course, editing means that performers can attempt ridiculous and extreme tempi which can either be edited together or – and this does happen – even sped up further at a later stage.

    So I think that all these things kind of “supercharge” a composers imagination when it comes to tempi. Obviously a composer works out a bar of music at an incredibly slow pace compared to how it is played. So there is time to imagine every articulation and dynamic, and unfortunately many composers never make the jump to imagining the physical actions required to actually perform something!

    Finally, there’s the simple fact that there is a huge amount of variation based on individual instrument (the fastest a flute can play this is different from a clarinet, from a marimba, from a harp, from a piano, from a violin, etc…), and even once you have that information – which you can only pick up in rehearsal – its never finalised. Not only is there variation from one performer to another, but each new generation of players pushes the envelope of both what is possible and achievable further.

    All of this is not to forgive laziness. Often this comment about “the ideal tempo” IS a hugely frustrating one that comes from a lack of thought and/or understanding. That’s deeply frustrating, I know!

    From a compositional standpoint, I almost always now tell performers: “Look this tempo is just the one I was imagining the music at. The marking is just a guide to help you discover the tempo for your performance.”

    How would that strike you, as a performer? Would you prefer to see more general tempo & character markings as opposed to specific tempi?

  2. Perhaps that composer just lack expressivity? I have read an article a few days ago about that. They have the skills but they lack in that aspect. I think as a performer, if the tempo is faster than I’m expecting it to be, I’ll be totally pissed and would end up catching up. I don’t know what other’s think but that’s my humble opinion.

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