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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Composing Articulation for Winds – Tell Me What To Say

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

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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