I wonder if other there are other composers who have the same relation to tempo that I do. I sometimes struggle with the beginning of a piece until I get the tempo right. In recent months I’ve written sketches for a piece commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Players for next January. I wrote a passage at quarter-note = 88. Didn’t feel right. Wrote further passages at that tempo. All fell limp the next time I looked at them. Tried a new passage at 112. Even worse. Finally, today, I got an idea at quarter-note = 84 and suddenly wrote 100 seconds of music in an hour. 84 is a good tempo for me, and one I’ve used before: calm, unhurried, and yet with a little energy. Yet after I’ve written a piece, I generally give the performer(s) considerable leeway with tempo. In the case of The Day Revisited, though, I learned from experience that the piece only works at half-note = 50, which was the first tempo I’d marked – not a beat more or less.
On the other hand, for my Disklavier pieces I’ve gotten in the habit of accepting Sibelius’s default tempo of quarter-note = 100, and, since there are no performers to worry about, simply used quintuplets or septuplets or 13th-lets or whatever to get the speed I want.
I’ll never forget how at the first June in Buffalo festival, 1975, at dinner one night Morton Feldman talked about how young composers used to write everything at 60, but lately they had all started using 72. That was my first inkling that even a tempo could become a cliché. One of the great things about Feldman was that he could pick out clichés no one else would have recognized. I hope 84 isn’t becoming a fad.