Against the Tide

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.


  1. says

    Bravo, Kyle. Similar to what a lot of us have been ranting about at Sequenza 21. I’m writing something right now that, over what is now almost an hour and a half of continuous music, there are hardly any dynamics marked. No articulations or slurs either. A few ritard signs, but hardly any of those, either. Again, each to his or her own. But why should someone be penalized for not conforming to the usual academic expectation of a carefully (and near-totally) marked up score? Does everyone have to pretend to be another Ferneyhough?
    A lot of great music, as you correctly point out, has few if any dynamic markings. Maria de Alvear is well known for having very little specified, including note durations. Doesn’t diminish her music; indeed, I think it makes the performer have to take the extra time to interpret, rather than just playing a bunch of notes.

  2. says

    Fortunately, I don’t work in the kind of single-minded environment you describe. Here, it’s understood that the students’ responsibility is to learn, to stretch themselves. I want them to be able to write music with and without very specific expressive indications. I have found that it takes more effort for them to learn to write with lots of indications effectively, because it requires a nuanced understanding of the psychology and physiology of performers. For that reason, I have to say that it is easier to write dynamically minimal music when you have learned to write detailed music than vice versa.
    KG replies: I agree – that you’re fortunate, and with the rest of your post. But my students get a steady diet of heavily-dynamic-nuanced music, and when they rebel against it (as the ones who choose me as a teacher often do), it’s against my principles to impose it on them and make their music something they no longer believe in. I talk a lot about performer psychology and reactions no matter what their notational style is, because it can be just as crucial without dynamics as with. I emphasize to every one of them that there are many tools a composer needs to acquire, even if he or she might not plan to ever have a use for them; and also that the (artistically) successful composer uses only the tools needed for a piece, not using others just because she has them.

    I also think there’s more to be said about the conception of composing you describe. There’s a common idea that a composer is supposed to be a “professional,” ready for anything, with a large basket of available tools and styles, and some versatility. I think I’m that type – I never minded learning all kinds of stuff in college, whether I was going to use it or not, and my stylistic range is relatively broad. But there are certain composers, including some of the ones I most admire, for whom versatility is anathema – they are driven to compose their music, only their music, and they have to create it from the ground up. Harry Partch, La Monte Young, and Giacinto Scelsi come to mind. I think it’s important to be receptive to the possibility that a student might geniunely be that type, and not push everyone into the same mold.

  3. Paul Muller says

    The use of explicit notation on every phrase would seem to be a throwback to romanticism. As if contemporary music is somehow not linked to a great musical lineage if all the phrases are not sculpted and shaped. I never bother with dynamic markings; to me it is all a function of the players and the setting. My compositions are for friends, so we work at the piece together to get the best out of it, and mark it up during rehearsal.
    I think in the case of Bach and jazz, the composer and the players are close enough to be collaborating in a similar manner. The distance of the modern professional composer from the modern professional musician would seem to require more notation because of the formal nature of their relationship. But it is not a requirement for the creation of good music.

  4. says

    Well, then, Kyle, we agree completely. When I come across single-minded students who create their own worlds from the ground up, I don’t push them into preset molds — I ask them what they are doing in school. I don’t think every great composer has to have a degree.
    KG replies: True again, and I almost said something to that effect. But in the case of my students, I like to think what they’re doing is meeting one of the few sympathetic spirits they’ll meet in the music world.

  5. lawrencedillon says

    You’re right, and it’s ironic, isn’t it? Academia is still one of the best places to encounter intellectual free spirits.

  6. says

    “… does not micromanage the performer.”
    I like that a lot, because it’s exactly how I feel about it. I used to put dynamics into everything, but now I just put them in at particularly important places or even not at all. A score is just a recipe for making music in my view, and is not the actual music itself: “Season to Taste.”

  7. says

    I was about to post a little snip, turning your attention to Joseph Matthias Hauer. His later 12-tone music is completely devoid of dynamical markings, exactly because he wanted the interpretation to come from the performing musicians, and because he did not see the role of the performer to be that of a robot merely executing the strict musical program of the composer.

    When Schönberg and Hauer first met, Schönberg insisted that Hauer should mark out every dynamical nuance in perfect detail, saying something like: ‘wir muss für den Ewigkeit schreiben’.

    In a furious letter describing this encounter with Schönberg, Hauer ends with the conclusion: ‘Nur ein Trottel schreibt für die Ewigkeit’.

    But when I started searching for some good links to more info about Hauer, I found your previous blogpost about him. Seems you are already familiar with his work.

    Anyway, you could easily add just about any part of his later scores to the door display.
    KG replies: But I appreciate the reminder about his dynamics. Thanks!

  8. says

    We may have discovered the first connection between downtown music and Christian worship-service music: many of the arrangements of hymn tunes for instruments and piano turned out by Christian music publishers lack dynamics and force the performers to deduce what’s correct on their own. Back in the day when I still performed a lot of this, it was frustrating, but the pianist said to the aspiring trumpeter, “You’d better learn how to do that, because publishers don’t like to mess with that.”