It’s All About Not Pushing the Listener Around

For years I have fought within musical academia for the right (for myself and students) to minimally notate dynamics, to not use dynamic contrast as one of the ways of structurally articulating a piece if you don’t want to do so. I have seen student works cancelled or excluded because they were soft (or loud) throughout, or because within a certain range they wanted to leave dynamic nuances to the performer. I have paraded around with copies of manuscripts by Bach and Rzewski that are devoid of dynamic markings, to prove that their absence does not indicate musical idiocy, and I have argued myself blue in the face to composers adamant that dynamic particularity is synonymous with “professionalism.” But such a discussion came up on Sequenza 21, and Peter Gordon, of Love of Life Orchestra fame back in the ’80s, gave an eloquent rationale for dynamic reticence that had never occurred to me:

I don’t know whether dynamics is so much about compositional contrast, but more how much you want to signal for the listener within the composition. More static dynamics allow the listener more freedom and offer a contemplative space to explore other parameters, often at the listener’s own pace. More active and extreme dynamics can involve the listener on a more physiological level, which can be good or bad. Overactive and domineering dynamics can, if cynically used, run the danger of becoming – like the work of Steven Spielberg – emotionally pornographic.

UPDATE: One more point in response to some comments, because I hadn’t planned on getting into another notation argument – the whole issue has come to disgust me because of the neurotic, historically myopic concensus that has come to exist among 95 percent of today’s composers.

I have found a tremendous difference in responses to notation between performers who specialize in 20th-century music and those who play mostly Classical/Romantic repertoire, and far prefer the latter. One of my colleagues intimidates students who hand her music that is “deficient” in dynamic markings by saying, “This is the way they’ll play it:” – and then she plows through the music at the piano with the most unimaginative uniformity. In my experience, that can indeed be true with 20th-century specialists, who have been trained to react to the printed page with the literalness of a computer; but hand the same music to a Beethoven specialist, and they’ll do what they do with Beethoven, interpret it and invest it with feeling, coming up with the most delightfully varied and creative responses.

Whenever possible I prefer to work with conventional classical musicians. If I know in advance I’m writing for 20th-century specialists, I try to dutifully nail down every tiny nuance, as if I were making electronic music, because I know they’re not bringing any creativity to the table. The process is so much nicer, though, when the performer comes with her own human and musical instincts. Pianist Sarah Cahill is such a creative performer, even if she does specialize in 20th-century (but recent, not the academic stuff) – and the way she plays my Private Dances is more beautiful than I imagined them, and surprising in some cases. Thank goodness I didn’t load the pages down with hairpins, slurs, accents, and precisely calibrated tempo changes that would have kept her from following her muse.

For the other 31 reasons why I think most composers have their heads up their asses where notation is concerned, I once again refer the reader to my article The Case Against Over-Notation.


  1. David D. McIntire says

    Gordon makes a good point, though not one that will gain much traction in the academy. The argument I hear as a grad student is that since there is no consistent performance practice any more, one MUST exert maximum precision in notating dynamics. I also hear a more concealed message sometimes—that a lack of dynamic abundance indicates a sort of lackadaisicleness on the part of the composer.
    I had a comp master class experience recently where I showed a Reasonably Famous Composer a chamber work that I was writing. Her entire exchange with me focused on my lack of dynamic precision, angrily chiding me because not every single hairpin in the piece had a dynamic placed at each end. She addressed no other aspect of the piece whatsoever, just the dynamics.
    After that I began to wonder if some composers who sit on selection panels and juries don’t use this issue as a quick means of sorting through the scores. If the dynamics are elaborately realized, then the other aspects of the piece must be too, right?

    KG replies: I and my students have had the exact same experiences over and over again. And I’ve watched composers on panels throw pieces in the reject heap because they’re not full of dynamic markings, and Joan Tower admits to me that she does that. The way you state the explanations (which I answer in my article The Case Against Over-Notation) is the way they’ve all learned to parrot in grad school. And yet all those tiny dynamic differentiations are only suitable for a particular style, the style they believe everyone should be writing in. It’s weird, in a fascistic sort of way.

  2. says

    Oh well – one I Would Say Quite Famous Indeed Dutch Composer admitted that he had a similar though different “instant junk pile” criterium: for an orchestral competition, he just refused to look at any piece in 4/4 with quarter equals 60.
    KG replies: Hmm. I kind of like that one. I remember at June in Buffalo, 1975, Feldman saying that quarter-note = 60 was the old cliché, but that it had been replaced by quarter-note = 72.

  3. says

    The Peter Gordon quote is right on the money. And it applies not only to dynamics but to all details – articulation, for example – that can tell the listener how to respond. Limiting detail, or using it in other than conventionally expressive ways, is no different from what minimalism does in limiting the amount and/or rate of change of pitch and rhythmic information. The result may be Gordon’s “contemplative space” or some other mode of (inter)active listening.
    On the other hand, details can be used to form their own patterns. In some recent pieces I’ve made patterns of both dynamics and articulation that operate non-expressively and independently of (or interdependently with) pitch and rhythm. I worried at first that I was re-inventing “total serialism,” but then again, why not ? “Serial totalism?”

  4. says

    actually, i’ve often found myself playing a lot of ‘undernotated’ scores and been frustrated because the composer did have something specific in mind, but i have to fish it out of him. if you give me a score with no dynamics and no articulations, yes, i’ll do some interpreting, but i’ll probably play it in a mostly standard classical way. after playing it enough to figure out that maybe that style isn’t appropriate (usually, the composer wants something a little more rock’n’roll, chunkier, beefier, less typical ‘nice’ flute sound, but it’s not entirely obvious), then i have to ask, and play it or sing it a bunch of different ways to see what the composer is actually looking for. it just slows things down. you don’t have to have three dynamic and three articulations for every note, but sometimes just a few marks, or a word or phrase (even ‘as you like’) or two moves things along.
    the other pet peeve is getting a super-notated score with ridiculous rhythms and then the composer says, ‘oh you don’t have to count everything, just play it expressively.’ one or the other! if you don’t want it so exact, then why notate it so specifically?

  5. says

    Creating a music not driven by ego, that moves on its own, expressively, dramatically and with ease, is not in conflict with notational clarity.
    KG replies: Did anyone say it was? And did anyone say that notational clarity and a wealth of detailed specifications were the same thing?

  6. Jun-Dai says

    Perhaps, in addition to all of the other reasons you mention above, a reason for focussing on notation as a source of criticism is that it is such an easy thing to criticize, because the presence or absence of dynamic markings is a fairly objective quality of a piece. For a busy competition judge it might be like going through a pile of a thousand resumes and tossing all of the ones that aren’t printed on nice paper.
    Kyle mentions that one reason he uses for sparse dynamic markings is that he likes to cede a certain amount of creative control to the performer. Certainly this allows a performer to construct a more cohesive piece if they choose to and are capable of it, something that I think a lot of performances could benefit from, but I can think of another reason to eschew dynamic markings, which has a little bit more to do with Bach: a lot of music has a logical dynamic approach, and it only needs markings if you are going to work against it, or if there is ambiguity. Leaving the intuitive dynamic markings out should force the musician to think about the piece on a more intellectual level to determine what the desired effect is, where the piece is going, and what the dynamics must be as a result of that.
    So one challenge for composers that insist on a fully-marked score is that if I can’t erase most of the dynamic markings then the dynamics that I’ve written must be counter-intuitive, which may indicate a much more serious problem with the music (if I didn’t intend for it to be counter-intuitive).
    Here’s another, perhaps better, challenge for a dynamic-happy composer: why don’t they insist on fingerings? In piano, fingerings often dictate (or are dictated by) the interpretation of the music. At least one famous pianist has said that the biggest differences between great pianists and their interpretations are all in the fingerings, the rest comes out of that. On string instruments, the fingerings have an even more profound effect on the sound that perhaps the composer should be dictating.
    . . .
    The idea that the musician can’t play the piece because you haven’t crossed your i’s and dotted your t’s as far as dynamics are concerned is ridiculous. I’m sure there are musicians that will play your piece flatly if you don’t spell out for them how not to, but if they can’t figure out how to make the piece sound interesting without those promptings, then how are they going to make the piece sound interest with them? That said, if the dynamics you want are counterintuitive or ambiguous, you’d better mark them, though perhaps there’s a way you can make the dynamics intuitive by adding some a comment that describes the effect that you’re going for, such as “tempestuous,” “barely audible,” or “thumping bass notes”.

  7. says

    Kyle, you cannot overdo your criticism of over notation! It is with its cousin, too much theorizing-in-advance in the visual artworld, a symptom of an extremely anti-human, academy (in the perjorative sense) now too dominant. This is important. We have to remind people (composers, artists, curators, critics, etc.) to stop trying to tell everybody what to think in every little detail in advance of the experience! Keep it up!
    KG replies: Well said, Mark. The minute I see someone telling young composers to conform, I think that person can’t possibly know what being an artist is about.