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Advice for Composers instrumentation pet peeves

Pet Peeves for composers

This is going to be a work in progress.

To all composers – here is one musician’s (of the flutist persuasion) list of pet peeves:
There is a compositional tradition which I would like to ask composers to please avoid, especially when writing for wind players. This is using a comma (which looks to a wind player like a breath mark) at the end of a note to indicate that the player should maintain the intensity of the dynamic and end the note abruptly, without tapering:



A wind player’s instinct on seeing this mark is to make a quick inhalation – not the effect desired. A preferable solution would be to make a stylistic indication at the beginning of the work, or to indicate the dynamic graphically:

A short list of other pet peeves:

  • Using empty note heads to indicate air or aeolian sounds. Please see my tips on this subject.
  • Bass flute together with bass clarinet. Neither their ranges nor sonorities match. IMO the bass flute is better paired with the A-clarinet. The bass clarinet is a different animal altogether, with a much broader range, more scope for dynamics, than the bass flute. Just because they are both labeled “bass” (incorrectly, as it turns out for the bass flute, but that’s another story altogether) doesn’t mean they belong together.
  • piccolo and E-flat clarinet ditto. Cliche. Why bother? Unless you want to sound like a screeching street band. Maurico Kagel was able to get away with it.
  • Fluttertongue. It’s also cliche. Give it a rest please. (And it’s not a given that every flutist can do it – Asian flutists have a more difficult time. I myself cannot do the forward version, but have to resort to the Parisian Gargle) And it’s often imprecisely notated, esp. when it comes to mixing the flute and voice. When written together, why are they sometimes written differently? If one does a fluttertongue, the other will automatically do it too – it would be nice to have it reflected in the notation.
  • Extended techniques stacked up on top of one another. This is something some resort to thinking that it will make the sound more interesting and intense. Well, some techniques cancel each other out and just muddy the waters. Better to pick a few that work acoustically well together.
  • Difficulty for difficulty’s sake. OK, Ferneyhough made it part of the esthetic of Cassandra’s Dream Song – to make the struggle an intrinsic part of the music. But this is a rare case of it actually working (IMHO), I do love this piece but I haven’t come across another that successfully uses this scheme.
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Advice for Composers

Stolen Moments: What Makes a Composition Difficult?

This has got to be the worst time to start something you want to keep up. Blogging, now, with work and a 4 month old baby? Are you nuts? Well, silly question.I figure this stuff is in my head anyway, might as well get it out and get on with my life.

A composer asked me the other day what is it that makes a piece really difficult? Here’s what I came up with. Please bear in mind, these are not mistakes or pet peeves. For a list of frequent mistakes, please click here.

  • rapid microtonal (or quartertone) passages
  • anything that requires doing two techniques in different rhythms (i.e. key click and voice in different tempi or polyrthythm)
  • no place to breathe
  • extended passages outside the “normal” range of the flute

I’m sure I’ll add to this list as time goes on. Please note that this is not a list of things to avoid, I list them only to create an awareness of potential difficulty. It’s great to work with someone who cares to ask the question! Now for the next step, to list my pet peeves! Hee Hee

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