Placating the Postminimal Performer

One of
the issues I deal with every day as a composer (every day I get to compose,
that is), is the tension between what I want to hear and what’s “grateful” for
the performer to play. I suspect a lot of us are in this boat now. It started
with minimalism. There are a lot of postminimal pieces I love listening to, and
then I open the score and see page upon page of streaming 8th-notes without
rests, or multiple tied whole-notes for wind players, or intricate
permutational passages within small ranges, and think, “Boy, I love hearing it,
but I’m glad it’s not me who has to play it.”

wouldn’t want to seem critical by naming pieces, but the locus classicus
I show to students in this
respect is Steve Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards of 1979.
Stunning piece, I love hearing it, but I look at those wind parts, and my first
thought is “oxygen deprivation.” My second is, “Imagine the kind of
concentration needed to keep all those fast patterns lined up right through
changing meters for 20 minutes.” And Tehillim? Jeezus, what a workout! I remember when the Netherlands opera
orchestra started working on Glass’s Satyagraha
and the players leaked
bitter complaints to the press about having to saw away on 8th-notes for quarter-hours at a
time. The paradigms for that music came from Reich’s and Glass’s personal
ensembles, either keyboard- or mallet-percussion-based, and – I don’t really
know about mallets – but it’s kind of easy to lose yourself in a mechanical
groove fingering away endlessly at the keyboard. Breathing’s not an issue, nor do you have to continually keep your elbow in the air.
Glass and Reich also had a few wind and string performers, like Jon Gibson and
Barbara Benary, who developed the technique for it; plus, in those early works
it was sometimes acceptable to drop out occasionally for a few notes and come
back in again.

general, though, performers aren’t too happy to be handed endurance tests, and
a lot of my compositional technique has gone toward preserving the qualities I
want from minimalism while giving the performers something graceful and
rewarding to play. I’m writing a string quartet. My impulse would be to keep
the players pretty much confined to one string for ten minutes at a time, but I
want them to use the whole range of their instruments, not get too tired, and
feel each phrase as something musical. So I’m wracking my brain to introduce
frequent variety and gently nuanced phrases without introducing any drama,
anguish, or climaxes whatever, anything that will disturb the placid, uniform
surface I want. And page turns! – boy, did that get me in trouble with my guitar
quartet Composure
. We all agreed that having a page-turner next to each
guitarist would look pretty silly, so I went back and finagled some
two-measure rests in so they could keep going. But the postminimalist textural paradigm I favor tends to keep everyone playing all the time. This was more feasible when the music was so repetitive that the score would fit on two pages, like In C.

also working on a piano piece whose concept keeps the pianist’s left hand in
the lower half of the bass clef throughout, and it’s a pretty quick piece. So
I’m carefully arranging rhythms in intuitively graspable heirarchies so the panist’s
brain can proceed by phrases rather than tediously note-to-note. One of the
most dangerous things I ever did in this respect was the last movement of Transcendental
in which each of the chorus’s SATB parts never strays more than a minor third
from the pitch it starts on; turned out to be kind of exhaustingly difficult,
as I taught myself before turning it in by singing through all the parts
myself. I went back through and added occasional appoggiatura inflections to
make it a little easier, and that helped. I love that effect of the chords
hovering almost motionless as the harmony changes, but the singers would have
had a much easier job leaping around from time to time.

problem is that I’m trying to introduce into live performance a paradigm that
comes from ambient music, and whose origins are electronic. In the abstract, this
is not a novel concern. In the ’50s and ’60s, composers like Boulez and
Stockhausen and Ligeti were introducing concepts from electronic music (like
bandwidth) into their music, which gave the performers some new challenges.
Many from my generation infuse postclassical music with the gestures of rock.
Classical music isn’t really a receptive medium for all these foreign
paradigms. It’s strange, when you think about it: Ligeti should have made
electronic music, Michael Gordon should have been a rock star, and I should
have made ambient music, but instead we pick up new paradigms in these areas
and bring them back to torture string quartets and orchestras with. The serialists,
finding saftely in numbers, managed to create a class of performers specialized
to play their atomized rhythms and textures. (I know of one soprano who’s made such a
career of singing major sevenths and minor ninths exquisitely that she sounds
pretty shaky trying to effect a major scale.) Will we postminimalists ultimately nurture a
repertoire of performers suited to our exorbitant needs? Well, we’ve got Joe Kubera the human player piano, who’s great for all those relentless devices
that drive everyone else nuts. But other players I know will play such things
when they have to, and hope they don’t have to too often.

composers, of course, take the attitude (and will write in with it here), “Just
write the music you want to hear and let the performers deal with it, it’s
their problem.” But I really want my performers to enjoy playing my pieces, and
most of all, I want the music to sound
like the performers are really into it. After
one concert I reviewed for the Voice
I remarked that I wanted to go onstage and
cordon off the performers with a yellow “Men at work” banner. I want to hear performers play, not work. I treasure the
fact that Sarah Cahill finds my Private Dances
fun to play. And I’m going
to continue losing sleep over this string quartet until it plays like Schubert
and sounds like me.


  1. William Lang says

    That’s funny. I’ve often felt the opposite of you as a performer. I’ve liked playing a lot of pieces much more than listening to them. In particular, I love the endurance tests, and see them more as performance art after a fashion.

  2. says

    Well maybe music will evolve in two directions – music written for performance and music written to be heard.
    Given the advances in electronic realization and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to reach a worldwide audience via the Internet at a negligible cost – composers are now free to pursue their art wherever it might lead technically.
    The biggest grossing film of all time was ‘realized’ digitally and not photographed. Perhaps we will see a similar trend in the musical arts.

  3. says

    Thanks Kyle. I really struggle with this all the time. I have a few works for brass or winds that in all honesty probably will never be played by humans because every performer freaks out over the paucity of rests. Really, I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to nearly asphyxiate some brass
    or flute players for the fun of it. And recently inwrote a sax quartet that was very hard for me to write because I didn’t war the same issue to crop up. It’s hard, but I’m told by the sax virtuoso who requested it that it is indeed playable, all 50 minutes of it. Hopefully someday.
    At the same time, I wrote a harpsichord piece for a longstanding friend and she found it daunting in terms of stamina. And some things I’ve had successfully performed still tax the performers because of the largely continuous nature of the music, so I guess my stuff is harder than it looks. I wish I had a good solution to this conflict. Or else a ready supply of musicians who don’t tire and who have mastered circular breathing. Very few wind and brass performers seem to be fine with circular breathing; maybe it’s a physiological anomaly like how Lance Armstrong has more efficient oxygen consumption. Anyway, I feel your pain because it’s mine as well.

  4. Rodney Lister says

    As my composition teacher Malcolm Peyton used to remind me, pieces (parts) that are interesting/fun to play/grateful get practiced more. I don’t think that the “write what you hear” mantra means that you’re not supposed to make what you write playable and grateful for what ever instrument/ensemble you’re writing for. So, I guess the point of this is to offer my affirmation of/agreement with everything you wrote.

  5. says

    I’m sure your concerns here, rarely expressed by composers like yourself, will be welcomed by many musicians. However, I think many would also say that it’s not only the repetitive stress syndrome for both brain and fingers playing minimalist and post-minimalist music, but the lack of opportunity to make any meaningful artistic contribution to the music as a performer that is equally if not more off-putting.
    The ability to generate both synthesized sound and cut-and-paste notation in the computer age has tempted the composer to finally attain total control over how the music is performed – but at what cost? In live performances in this style, if the performers’ skills are at a certain level, the results will often be virtually the same and predictable no matter who is playing.
    On the other hand, writing new music today that is only a poor imitation of late-19th century Romanticism can feel just as synthetic and second-hand to performers in a different but parallel way. Writing in a musical style that is both fresh and yet still invites the creative juices of the performers to bring to full fruition remains a challenge.

  6. David Anchel says

    I totally agree. I performed on the first recording of Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach.” as the bass in most of the ensembles. There was one section that was supposed to be sung by a 32 person choir, but there were only four of us. In addition, it required about 10 minutes of music where there was no place to breathe. We accomplished this by singing 2 measures and resting 2 measures and then going back, resting 2 measures and then singing the missing 2 measures. Of course, we had to do this about 4 times to create a choir of 32.
    After several hours, we finished and the ensemble and some of the singers rushed to the recording booth to hear the finished piece. By that time, I never wanted to hear that music again and hid in the studio. I have to say that subsequently I have enjoyed listening to the recording, but the memory of how unpleasant it was to record still remains.
    KG replies: Wow.

  7. M. says

    Page-turning? You’d think by now one could put the sheet music on a smartphone or tablet or something and let it scroll down during the performance.
    KG replies: Still prohibitively expensive, as I understand. But it can’t come fast enough.

  8. steven says

    I enjoy circular breathing for long periods of time (especially difficult electroacoustic sounding multiphonics (which no other saxophonist wants to touch with a 100ft. pole)). Write for me. Everything in life involves work….’arbeit macht frei’…i have no qualms with performers looking like they are working, or feeling the somatic pangs of their works, just like construction workers do everyday. I’d rather see that than some flabby, sack of decadence get up on stage, play xenakis perfectly, but then stink up the auditorium with the distinct musk of his superfluous flesh.

  9. says

    A friend of mine recently commented that I was a marathon runner trying to write marathon music for sprinters. I’m glad she figured this out, though, because I now have a better idea of how to write for her and some of my other colleagues. I understand better what they are good at. It doesn’t solve the problem, of course, of getting continuous music played continuously.
    I found it eye-opening in college when our wind ensemble worked on David Maslanka’s Symphony #2: pretty much anything that is moto perpetuo is split up between two players. While I am fond of the kind of solo virtuosity that can handle mechanic motion, I have to realize everyone has their limits. Expanding the ensemble is not a bad solution.
    Circular breathing unfortunately does not equal endless stamina. Circular breathing is actually fairly exhausting for long periods of time, because it’s not like normal breathing. Then there’s the issue of saliva build-up… If you haven’t read Robert Dick’s book on circular breathing, check it out.

  10. Andrew says

    Hmmm…under the circumstances, “Accommodating” might be better than “Placating.”
    That criticism aside, blogging was *made* for matters like this.
    KG replies: Not the performers *I* work with. They’ll tear my arm off if I don’t bring along a slab of raw meat. Besides, it alliterates.

  11. Gene Gaub says

    I played a series of performances of John Adams’ “Phrygian Gates” a few years ago, and found that the issue of page turning was the biggest logistical stumbling block. But now there is some terrific software available called MusicReader that converts PDF files to a format that is large enough to read from my MacBook, and pages are turned using a wireless pedal. This has totally transformed my approach to performing, and to repeat, it’s really inexpensive: the software and pedal cost under $150. The first time I used it was for a series of performances of William Duckworth’s “Time Curve Preludes.” Check it out.
    KG replies: That’s the most optimism-inducing news I’ve heard in months.

  12. karl7777 says

    While reading your post, I was reminded of this Charles Rosen quote:
    “The music that survives is the music that musicians want to play. They perform it until it finds an audience. Sometimes it is only a small audience, as is the case so far for Arnold Schoenberg, and I am not sure if he will ever capture a large one, but he will be performed as long as there are musicians who insist on playing him. The most significant composers are those that gain the fanatical loyalty of some performers.” – Charles Rosen (“Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New”)
    Your concerns seem valid. Devoted and enthusiastic performers are worth their weight in gold.

  13. says

    You don’t even need any special software, I use Adobe Reader and a (wired) pedal with my laptop and a large separate screen when I have long solo works with nowhere to turn pages.

  14. Andy Sauerwein says

    Thanks Kyle, et al. Hearing a detailed account of your struggle with this issue illuminates the larger question wonderfully, especially in a context where lots of us can flesh out the picture. It seems evident that the relationship of composer to performer(s) is the underlying ethical concern: responses point to a variety of different kinds of performers (not to mention a wide range of compositional voices) and listeners. How composers and performers make music together depends on these factors, as well as the concerns of audiences and venues.
    Sadly, we too often focus on the idea of “getting the technique right”, instead of dealing with one another as friends collaborating on the making of music. It’s refreshing to see the human dimension recognized here, and the possibility of an ethical, relational “solution” to the question–and this makes it worth “losing sleep”.
    However, I don’t think anyone needs to worry about sounding like themselves. In my experience, “personal voice happens” whether we like it or not(this might make a good bumper sticker), and some of the least interesting music has come from people who are preoccupied with trying self-consciously to be original. And, if we orient our concern away from ourselves and toward others (performers, audiences), we can more authentically and conscientiously attend to the demands we make on performers and listeners.

  15. mclaren says

    If the composer has the attitude “write what you want and don’t worry about the performer”…well, that’s what computers and Pro Tools are for, aren’t they?
    Why does anyone have to perform the thing? Make it as hard to play as you want, then use MIDI or Csound or MAX/MSP or PD or Blue or a multitrack digital recorder whatever. We’re no longer living in the 19th century.
    As for the claim that “the music that survives is the music that performers want to play” — oh, really? So Pierre Schaeffer’s tape music and Tod Dockstader’s tape music and Vladimir Ussachevsky’s tape music and Richard Karpen’s tape music and John Chowning’s computer music and Bill Schattstaedt’s computer music and Paul Lansky’s computer music survives and keeps selling on CD because those computers and tape recorders really really want to play it, huh..?
    KG replies: The biggest mistake of my life was to drop out of electronic music. Shoulda hung in there. And it’s difficult to get a commission for an electronic piece anyway.

  16. says

    iPad and similar will surely be the way to go for screen music in the near future I’d a thought. The electronic music stands have been out for a while, but never took on. Specialised equipment is not likely to.
    I have been toying with the idea of my iPhone mounted on a harmonica holder (mostly for the novelty look of it). But better, memorise the music. Phil Glass used to have a non-reading member I seem to recall – had to learn all those ensemble pieces by ear.

  17. says

    mclaren said it better than I could have. You might even make the case that the next step in minimalist-inspired music depends on electronic realization. Musicians – being only human – need to breathe and are hard put to repeat blizzards of 16th notes for several minutes at a stretch. I have been listening to ‘Music With Changing Parts’ by Philip Glass and it is a marvel what his ensemble could achieve – but we may be close to the point where the computer makes such heroic efforts unnecessary.
    One more thing. The May 31, 2010 New Yorker cover says it all. Here is a link to their archives:
    It is a bit hard to make out (close the subscription window and you can enlarge the cover image), but it shows a scene in Central Park and everyone is wearing ear buds except a lone busking guitar player.
    KG replies: Thanks for explaining the New Yorker cover. I didn’t get it.

  18. says

    As usual, a great article and a great conversation. I’ve been worrying about all this with my latest tune, which is nowhere near as relentless as some of the pieces you mention, but still has a touch of the no-rest problem and the how-many-times-have-I-played-this problem.
    I’ve attempted the solution suggested by Mclaren, back when my performance problems stemmed from religious belief in microtonality, and I do agree with him fundamentally, but I found it hard to be all things: composer and performer and recording engineer. Also, I do simply like live performance. Composition and realization is a small part of the musical experience for me, the fullness of which extends into so much more, not the least of which is the social aspects, drinking and flirting with the performers. There is also a stir craziness that comes with sitting in the basement tweaking a parameter here and nudging an timing there night after night.
    Sometimes difficulty is fun in itself. Performers love to complain about everything, but they still are attracted to a good piece and they really don’t want something too easy. I’m sure you’ve heard the Ives quote about the pedal part in Variations on America. I think about that quote all the time while I’m writing and wonder if the moment I’m constructing will be one of those that clicks into place once you get it. Success is also a great way to engage a performer. Even the most daunting piece is remembered with pleasure after a few curtain calls.