I’ve put up a little display on my office door, Xeroxes of the opening pages from seven pieces of music:
J.S. Bach: Violin Sonata in G minor (autograph)
Josquin des Prez: Alma Redemptoris Mater
Erik Satie: Pièces Froids
Leo Ornstein: A Reverie
Wayne Shorter: Nefertiti
Christian Wolff: Snowdrop
Frederic Rzewski: Attica
What do they all have in common?
There’s not a printed dynamic marking in the bunch. Not a p, not an f, not a hairpin.
Student composers in my environment are mandated to fill their scores with dynamic markings, crescendos and articulation markings on each phrase, with the implication that every phrase must have a nuanced, curvilinear dynamic envelope. By exhibiting successful works that all break that rule, I demonstrate that there is nothing that every piece of music has to do or have. Nefertiti, you will object, is jazz; exactly, the new music I’m interested in often exists in a state in between classical and jazz or pop, and does not micromanage the performer. Wolff’s Snowdrop doesn’t even specify clefs. Alma Redemptoris Mater was written before dynamic markings existed; much of the new music I love comes from a Renaissance influence. The Rzewski score has some dynamics lightly pencilled in by a performer, showing how each performance gets to reinterpret the piece anew.
Do I have anything against music of fluid, specified dynamics? Not at all. Just last semester I made one student fill a score with dynamics, because it was awash in energetic gestures that would have looked confusing without the dynamic volatility acknowledged. What I do have something against is conformity, especially the coerced kind.