Monday 21 February 2011

Free-form (1)

I have never been able to improvise, somehow I missed out on this in my early musical training. This despite that fact that one of my uncles played the piano by ear and another cousin played in a band. Perhaps it was that youthful struggles with exams left little room for free-form pianism; this plus that fact that relatively early on I started writing music as well.

My music was fully notated and has always remained so, though it must be confessed that nowadays I sometimes struggle to make our western european notation do exactly what I want to. But I am still rather wedded to the sort of control-freakery that likes to have everything down pat and leaves no note to chance. Of course, this isn't what happens.

I am sufficiently experienced as a performer of both instrumental and vocal music to know that there is a significant gap between notation and experience. A gap which must be filled by the performer. The composer's trick is to notate sufficiently so that what is played or sung matches expectations. My experiences in the last year or so turning my opera into a performed work have been illuminating in this respect.

In September I sat down with David, the musical director of the opera, to go through possible revisions and improvements to the score. One area that we considered in detail was the notation, not the notes but all the other bits and pieces which help to influence how an instrumentalist will play a score.

To a certain extent, it is easier with singers as they will usually react to the words. So that all you need is to take a little extra care with the phrasing. But instrumentalists don't have the words, you must guide them. And this means you have to sit down at the computer and go through the parts, bar by bar, thinking what exactly do I want and how do I achieve this. There are conventions to be taken into account; players of different instruments will react to signs differently, partly by convention and partly through the different physical nature of their instrument.

A superb example of someone who included everything in the score is Elgar. It is fascinating going through his orchestral scores, noting what he has written and working out why. Compare this to the music of Bach and Handel, where dynamics and other notations are rare. This was because Bach and Handel were working within a culture which had very particular ways of playing things so that the barest of notations could be used. That and the fact that both composers tended to direct their own music.

Elgar directed his own music too (and his recordings can be illuminating), but he was writing large scale scores for performance by others when he might not be present. But this late Romantic tendency to notate everything couldn't go one of course, it would make music far too complex. And of course, composers like Lutoslawski decided that allowing an element of chance in the exact notes was perfectly acceptable. Post-war composers have had to make decisions about quite what they want to notate and what not. It is remarkable what can be achieved with a minimum of notation, where the composer is accepting that the performers are co-creators rather than interpreters.

I'm not entirely certain I could go down that route. My background is in Mathematics and I like things neatly prescribed, I want to control the notes that are played. In fact, I would often be happy to dispense with detailed dynamics. But western notation doesn't really faciliate this, there is no easy way of presenting vague, user-selected dynamics; to do so is usually to simply abrogate responsibility and end up making work for the conductor who will have to arrange for parts to be suitably marked up. When it comes to some choral writing, I have often wished that we had a way of specifying not how loud a line was, but which line was dominant and which accompanying so that you could dictate which parts predominated. Quite often my dynamics are simply one solution to the problem, there are others where the relative values remain constant but the absolute ones change (e.g. you could have a loud version and a soft version).

I am aware that sometimes, you end up having to be rather fussy in your use of notation to get what you want. And of course, if there are too many extra markings the performer might get tired and lazy and not apply them all.

So I am still looking for the perfect notation.

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