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.