Post-Rehearsal Musings

Big rehearsal for The Planets today. “Mercury”: lightning fast, ripping atonal scales, constant meter changes from 3/4 to 15/16 to 11/16, different tempos at the same time like 8-against-9 – went great, sounded perfectly secure. “Saturn”: slow, plodding pulse, rhythms in quarter- and 8th-notes – had a hell of a time pulling it together. I remember this from my early days as a competent pianist: difficult music is a lot easier to play than easy music. Scriabin’s fiery D#-minor Etude, with its relentless triplets and huge leaps, used to just fall under my fingers, while the Lento final movement of the Copland Sonata was a minefield of wrong notes. Why is that? Is it just because we practice hard music 20 times as much as easy music, or is it psychological, or what? Too much time to think in-between the notes?

It’s like, someone recently wrote a book about traffic (titled Traffic, I think), and a review quoted the fact that there are fewer accidents at roundabouts than there are at regular intersections: because we all think roundabouts are dangerous, so everyone drives extra carefully. If you want to make people drive safely, you make driving conditions visibly unsafe. If you want music played well, make it horrendously difficult. Whatever effect you want to achieve, aim for the opposite. Reminds me of that Seinfeld episode in which one character decides to do the opposite of his usual impulse at every step, and everything starts to work perfectly for him.
Another rehearsal-inspired thought: you can write a piece in notation software and the MIDI version sounds like crap, making you doubt your sanity; then the performers play it and it sounds just like you imagined, even more glorious. I’m used to this because for the first half of my career I wrote in pencil and had to hear all the music in my head. But today’s young composers who work in Sibelius from the beginning: how will they ever learn to trust their inner ears?

Comments

  1. Seth Winterhalter says

    Great point about young composers being to influenced by “midi-feedback”. Wish I would have known about the Seattle concert of your compositions. Let me know in the future as I’d love to hear more of your work! Hope all is well at Bard.
    Seth Winterhalter
    MFA Bard 03′

  2. laura says

    For me, slower music is harder to play and put together because of the length of time between the pulses (if there are any). Slowing down the brain to concentrate during stillness is much harder than processing quickly (guess that’s why they’re called Zen “masters” when they reach stillness!) One of the hardest pieces I ever played was a vn-va-vc trio by Alvin Lucier that was (in the viola part)one continuous upward gliss of less than an octave followed by one continuous downward gliss of less than an octave — stretched out over 10 or so minutes. It was excruciating…..

  3. Ian says

    I think your Traffic hypothesis is absolutely correct.
    Interesting point about Sibelius. As someone who entirely grew up on it, I often have moments of absolute self-doubt that if I can’t write as quickly away from the computer, what sort of composer am I?

  4. says

    I often wonder, and sometimes conclude, that if you can’t compose without Sibelius, Finale, or any other notation product out there, you can’t compose at all.
    I find it offensive – sometimes- when others call themselves composers, when really all they’re doing is writing music using a playback device that reveals in realtime what the music is – they don’t know it what it is at all themselves.
    I really would be interested in hearing a defense of composing with notation products exclusively, without the sensibility of working with music as composed, not as tried out (the “ooh, that sounds good!”) and made the way I imagine others today today.
    This obviously doesn’t apply to electronic music for the most part. I also found out that as a student in the first half of the nineties, I studied from a book that later became a full blown text which contained numerous examples of modal counterpoint – and which my professor insisted in his introduction: play these examples, and sing them – putting them into a laptop is worse than cheating.

  5. says

    Absolutely true. Back when I was a flautist, I was always surprised that auditions were made up mostly of slow pieces. Until I realized that was the best way to judge breath control and concentration. Any capable musician can move their fingers quickly, but real musicianship is the ability to make music *between* the notes.
    … And, oy, don’t get me started on how computers are changing notated music. There is still nothing like paper & pencil to write all those little dots. It’s like the sound of the pencil on paper triggers unique ideas. Maybe Sibelius 6 can have that as a sound effect when notes are entered.

  6. Christopher Butterfield says

    re: Kyle’s last para: I teach composition; my colleague Daniel Peter Biro and I both insist that our students work in pencil, from first year through grad studies. They can make a performance score with a computer if they like, but at least they will have imagined the sound first.

  7. says

    Dean — I accept your challenge. Your wording is somewhat confusing, so I hope I’m actually addressing your real point.
    I am basically incapable of composing without the use of my computer, because I never had to learn. I’m a poor pianist, and I can’t read a score and hear it in my head. But I do think I’m a pretty good composer.
    My first challenge to your position is this: in your world, is a composer who works at the piano not a real composer? My impression is that most composers who don’t compose at a computer compose at a piano, and I would argue that the main point of working at a piano is to be able to try things out and see how they sound, just as a notation program does. If you’re okay with pianos but not with computers, what’s the key difference to you? What is a piano, handled by somebody who knows how to play it, but a “playback device that reveals in realtime what the music is”? Maybe a piano can’t play all the notes at once, and can’t duplicate other instrument sounds, but so what? MIDI sounds wrong a lot of the time too. And composers frequently workshop pieces with other instrumentalists.
    When you say “they don’t know it what it is at all themselves” what do you mean? I choose where to place every note, and when I hear the playback it either sounds like what I was expecting or doesn’t sound like what I was expecting. If it doesn’t, then I decide whether I like what I heard more or less than what I was expecting, and make changes as appropriate. Unless your definition of “knowing what it is” requires the ability to read a score and hear the music in your head, of course I know “what it is” because I’ve JUST HEARD THE PLAYBACK. And if you _are_ inclined to require that “real” composers be able to hear the music in their heads, recognize that you’re just replacing one playback device with another.
    Now, let’s look at the distinction you’ve made between “as composed” and “as tried out.” Experimentation is an essential part of the compositional process, whether you do the experimentation in your head, at a piano, or on a computer. Composing is making decisions. If you’re writing a melody, you have to choose the next note, and you’re going to choose it based on which note does what you want. Even if you’re doing it in your head, you’re deciding that, for instance, A is better for your purposes than F#. If you’re making that decision somewhere, based on the difference between the options, you’re not composing. So why does it matter if you try out the options in your brain, on a piano, or on a computer? You’re trying things out and deciding which option you like better no matter what. The computer is just a different tool.
    If you don’t like composing on a computer, that’s fine. I’m not saying it’s the only way or the best way–maybe you hate it and can’t use it. Or maybe you like the ideas you come up with when you’re using paper and piano better. Great! You know what works for you. But the tools I use are no less legitimate than the ones you use.

  8. Ian says

    @Christopher Butterfield- I had a teacher who did the same thing, though on a much more sporadic basis (i.e every odd assignment)- unless you watch your students like a hawk, don’t be surprised if they’re still writing on the computer then just transcribing it by pencil. It’s what we all did! No doubt this signals the end of art music for ever and ever.
    @Dean- I was a bit surprised at your dislike of computers being used for composition when in your own biography you have “created a tool to generate compositional material” and that you identify as a composer of electronic music (do you do that with a pencil?).
    @Galen- absolutely. I’d also add that composition is about ideas and the execution (and, critically, editing) of those ideas. It doesn’t matter whether it’s done with pencil or Sibelius, but if the ideas are bollocks nothing is going to help.

  9. mclaren says

    Dean Rosenthal moseyed upto the bar and allowed as how I find it offensive – sometimes – when others call themselves composers, when really all they’re doing is writing music using a playback device that reveals in realtime what the music is – they don’t know it what it is at all themselves.
    In that case, Dean would find all my music offensive. It’s hard enough to figure out what 17 against 19 against 23 is going to sound like (quick — tap that rhythm with both hands and your right foot), especially when you’ve got 3-tuplets inside the 17 and 5-tuplets inside the 19 and 4 in the time of 3 inside the 22…but when you combine that with, say, 15 equal tones per octave, how exactly do you know ahead of time, before hearing it, what that’s going to sound like?
    In fact, the big blast for me comes precisely from not having any idea what the music will sound like before I hear it. If I knew what it’d sound like I wouldn’t have to compose it.
    Well, I guess that means I’m only “calling myself a composer.” You got me. Fraud exposed. And here I am, thinking it seemed amusing when one of the doyens on Sequenza21 dismissed one of my comments with the peroration, “I doubt you are even a composer.” Wow. Guess he was right. Who knew?
    KG replies, laughing: Well, this is why I was keeping out of this particular argument. I guess the optimum thing is to have good enough ears that you can imagine some level of complexity in your head – and then use technology to achieve things even *you* can’t hear, so everyone can find out what they sound like. But Cage said he couldn’t hear music in his head before writing it down. Of course Schoenberg said Cage wasn’t a composer. But sometimes I listen to Schoenberg’s late music and think Schoenberg wasn’t a composer.

  10. says

    Ian:
    That tool is an application available in Perl for free, and being developed into an iPhone application. It’s like a way to make strings of pitches out of words.
    My electronic music is written on graph paper and executed with a 4-track – the music is ancient. I was making mashups and mixes long before Girltalk and Apple – when John Oswald visited McGill in 1996, I was profoundly influenced.
    Thanks for reading my biography!

  11. says

    Ian:
    That tool is an application available in Perl for free, and being developed into an iPhone application. It’s like a way to make strings of pitches out of words.
    My electronic music is written on graph paper and executed with a 4-track – the music is ancient. I was making mashups and mixes long before Girltalk and Apple – when John Oswald visited McGill in 1996, I was profoundly influenced.