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.”
I 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.
In 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.
I’m 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
Sonnets, 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.
The 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.
Some 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.