Up to the Performer

Pianist extraordinaire Sarah Cahill, whose browser somehow won’t let her interact with Arts Journal comments pages, nevertheless chimes in on the dynamics issue:

Leo Ornstein… was an excellent pianist himself, and wrote fabulously for the piano.  But most of his piano scores have absolutely no dynamic markings whatsoever.  He believed that it was the pianist’s responsibility to come up with dynamics in the process of interpretation.  It’s so interesting, because there will be a passage which to one person is a climax, to be played forte, and to another person it will be an opportunity to back off and have it be more powerful as a pianissimo passage.  So his scores can be played in a variety of ways, and it’s fascinating to hear different performances.

…[W]hen a piece leaves dynamics out, it makes us as performers explore it in an entirely different way.  We can’t rely on superficial expression (playing dynamic markings as notated), we have to dig deeper and get to the heart of the piece to figure out what’s going on, how to best interpret it, and how dynamics figure into that interpretation.  It can be a more satisfying experience.

Not that everyone should compose the way Ornstein did – but if someone’s imagination works that way, why shouldn’t he be allowed to do it? How did conformity become such a cherished attribute among composers? And I can’t resist re-quoting the following note that Ellen Zwilich appended to her Lament for piano of 1999, a warning that Chopin would have found ludicrously obvious, but that today’s notation neuroses have made necessary:

Throughout, whether the passage is marked liberamente or not, the performer should feel free to ‘sculpt’ the rhythm and dynamics for expressive purposes in order to give a spontaneous, improvisatory quality to the piece. It would be ideal if no two performances were exactly alike.


  1. says

    Heh, the risk of under-notation is that you’re only going to be well-performed by ‘specialty performers.’ This also means, that after WW6 and the devastation that follows, when virtually all performance knowledge of post-classical music is lost, that people will be even more clueless about the performance tradition.

    I like to take a long view and hope for the best. I like to work within living traditions and exploit assumptions. And I don’t like to waste precious rehearsal time.

    I’m not pushing any notational agenda on anybody; just explaining my reasoning behind why I follow, numb and without regret, the old and heinous ways of the past.
    KG replies: I just wrote a whole blog entry saying that my experience has been just the opposite, that it’s the nonspecialists who have the least trouble playing my music well. And any biologist will tell you that it’s the specialized organism that has the most trouble adapting. Meanwhile, you’re going to base your notation style on the hypothetical premise that your scores are going to outlast your recordings by several centuries? It’s different, I’ll grant you that. :^)

    But the philosophical difference runs much deeper. Because you assume that for each piece I’ve written, I must have a specific way I want it to sound, and I refuse. I refuse to desire that each piece of mine sound the same every time it’s played.