How to Talk to String Players

I have now had a string quartet performed. The premiere recording of The Light Summer Land is up here and the performers are Ethan Wood and Megumi Stohs, violins; Sarah Darling, viola; and Josh Packard, cello. I am indebted to my composer friend Carson Cooman for arranging the performance. It went very well, though it almost didn’t. Luckily my composer friend Scott Wheeler came by for the dress rehearsal. Scott is not only a very good composer of operas and chamber music (he’s one of the ones who years ago insisted I refer to his music as “Midtown” rather than “Uptown”), but he’s worked with the Dinosaur Annex ensemble for 30 years as conductor and administrator. He knows how to talk to performers, and he also knows, as I don’t much, how players in an ensemble actually hear and interpret what a composer says to them. At the rehearsal, after a complete runthrough of the piece (I have a good memory for details of my pieces, and don’t like to stop an ensemble in flight), I went through section by section and marked things that I wanted to sound differently. When I finished, Scott came up and made more incisive and general comments about vibrato and dynamics. At dinner he explained to me:

“Performers like to be engaged on the level they understand. String players spend all their time in lessons obsessing over minutiae of vibrato and phrasing in traditional repertoire. When they play Brahms and Mozart, they feel ownership of their own performances, but when they come to our music, they leave responsibility to the composer, and if it sounds bad, it’s the composer’s fault. If you can get them to experiment with different levels of vibrato and dynamics and phrasing, they’ll take their own responsibility for making the music beautiful.” 

It seemed like good advice on the face of it, involving things I’d never thought of. I have a lot of experience with percussionists and pianists, not much with string players, and none, until now, with string quartets. And the proof was that the performance was 250% better than the rehearsal runthrough had been two hours earlier. And so I pass it along. 

I also had once again an experience I’ve had before, of the performers telling me afterward, “Oh, now I understand the piece.” Why didn’t they understand it before? Because I don’t write music of crescendos and decrescendos and climaxes. I generally write flat-dynamic, impassive music of languid repetitions, nonsequiturs, brooding stillness. Very few string players ever play music by Satie, Virgil Thomson, Cage, Brian Eno, Feldman, John Luther Adams. They go their entire lives making dramatic crescendos followed by ritardandos, big up-and-down emotional curves. Several months ago I heard a group of excellent student players, who doubtless could have played the hell out of Brahms, make a perfectly lifeless hash of the Cage String Quartet. Clearly no one knew enough to coach them as to what the surface of the piece should sound like, limpid and radiant. Classical players: meet postclassical music. It’s different. Some of its paradigms are electronic or mechanical, and it doesn’t always breathe or climax. Luckily, Scott, who writes music very different from mine but who was close to Virgil Thomson (and who arranged an introduction for me to him just before the great man died), is catholic enough in his tastes that he looked at my score and intuited exactly what I was trying to do – and got that across to the players, who responded beautifully. 

I took some risks in the piece, and some of them paid off better than I expected. I think there are a few continuity problems in the first half, which I’ve got plans to revise, but it was one of those pieces I needed to try out and hear live first. I’ve wandered into a style of minimalist collage, with adjacent process-panels, so to speak, whose logic of presentation may not be apparent in the short run. I think it worked out perfectly for me in Kierkegaard, Walking, but there are a few small missteps here, easily correctible, I think. 

Of course, I’ve learned that expressing modesty is also a risk. In my Cage book I rather gallantly, I thought, attributed any originality in the book to the army of Cage researchers whose work I was bringing together into one narrative. This netted me a few reviews along the lines of “Nothing new to say, but at least he admits it.” (Actually, I know very well that the sources I wove together in that book were so farflung and so many of them from such obscure journals, that you would have to be a rabid Cage researcher yourself not to encounter several ideas in that book for the first time. One idiot at Amazon stated that if you’ve read Silence, you’ll find nothing new in my book on 4’33” – even though 4’33” is mentioned exactly once in Silence.) Modesty used to elicit compensatory compliments. Nowadays it encourages the small-minded to echo one’s low self-estimation. Nevertheless, justified modesty is a habit I prefer not to discard.


  1. Ernest Ambrus says

    I’ve just played “The Light Summer Land” twice in a row. It’s amazing.

    Will this recording ever see release? If not through a label, you might consider a download-only release. I’d buy it without hesitation.

    KG replies: Thanks Ernest. Consider it a gift for now.

  2. says

    Excellent post as you know! Recently I have come to the view that there are five stages in classical music:

    1. What is in the composer’s head

    2. How the composer notates that

    3. How the performer interprets that notation

    4. How the performer puts what is in their head (i.e. their interpretation of the musical notation) into instrumental technique that produces sound

    5. How the listener hears the physical sound.

    I am in awe of string players but they think differently. Now my concern is how can I write music and notate it so that string players can make that magical sound that they do; and take the music to the next level?
    I have attended masterclasses, and listening to the performers spend ages discuss a trill, or accent, on one note confirmed to me how dedicated performers are. It reconfirmed the composer’s responsibility to write music that deserves this care and attention.