Indicted for Suspected Serialism

Indicted for Suspected Serialism

All complaining aside, one of the really cool things about being a graduate student is the periodic opportunity to have one’s piece read by killer visiting performers. I took part in such a reading yesterday. It was great to hear a new slant on an older piece, of course, but even more interesting were the assumptions the player, a violinist of some stature, made about the piece based on its notation and “style.”

One of the first things he noted about the piece before he even began to play was that he presumed it to be serially constructed, which it isn’t, really. Was it the parametric staff, the frequent and extreme dynamic changes, or just the crunchy harmonies that gave him that impression? He said it reminded him of Boulez, which was somehow both flattering and alarming. I’ve never been accused of serialism before, but the feeling is akin to what I imagine Alice Cooper went through when they said he bit a chicken’s head off.

He also played through the piece entirely without vibrato. The faster sections sounded cleaner this way than they have in previous vibrato-ful performances, but the slow section seemed somehow lifeless. The solution is obviously to add a performance note about vibrato to the score, but I had to wonder whether he’d exposed a flaw in the piece of which I was unaware: The notes and rhythms alone are apparently insufficient to carry the musical argument. His decision not to use vibrato raised another, more general question about performance practice: Do players just assume they shouldn’t employ vibrato on serial-looking pieces nowadays?

It may be specious to draw a connection between Assumption A and Assumption B. However, it’s not hard to envision the chain of deductions this performer might have made: The piece is atonal and structures performative parameters in ways that do not immediately seem to be rhetorically expressive—it’s probably serial. Serial pieces require a certain clarity of pitch and timbre to be successfully executed. To maintain this clarity, it is not unprecedented to abandon the conventionally (i.e. rhetorically) expressive exercise of vibrato.

My colleagues and I spend so much of our composing time refining our notation that our fastidiousness sometimes seems excessive even to us. Yesterday’s reading, however, suggested that time spent agonizing over notational decisions is probably time well spent after all—those notational decisions can inform players’ interpretive decisions in unforeseen and sometimes startling ways.

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8 thoughts on “Indicted for Suspected Serialism

  1. mp

    Please Colin, don’t make that mistake! Overnotating will not help at all. Notation is and will always be inadequate. Musicians are not machines that exactly follow the instructions we give them. In my experience, too much information will lead to a worse performance and a harder time rehearsing the piece.

    Communication is key here. The previous generation destroyed a lot when it comes to the relations btw composers and players, so we need to be super diplomatic when we explain to them what we want from them. I’d put more energy into that than in the notation if I were you.

    Very often, musicians see new music, and think that they have to play it in that heavy Brahmsian/Schoenbergian way. For me, usually it makes a world of difference when I tell them they don’t have to play that way.

    And for God’s sake, don’t put in “vibrato”, then you’re making sure you’ll get a lifeless performance!

  2. JKG

    You may consider this advice, or not, but an interesting aside on the topic you’ve mentioned, Colin. In my private lessons with Kent Kennan, we had regular conversations concerning “writing for the performer” as opposed to “writing for the instrument.” We both agreed too many composers (especially in the mid-70’s) were taken with an obstructionist view towards “expanding the capabilities of the instrument” as the expense of pure musicality. The defense usually given was the one about the violist who complained to Beethoven about the difficulty of a particular work, only to be reprimanded with something like “…who cares about your filthy little viola…”

    Obviously, Beethoven was not like that ALL the time. There does remain the matter of mutual respect amongst composers and performers, and flouting that respect will only take you so far. Once you are pegged as “difficult for difficult’s sake,” you will be seen as both lacking in social skills and artistically immature (no matter what your age). Write for the performer, and there will yield a gratitude which will bloom with mutual musical wisdom and understanding.

  3. jlz

    Trust in the musicality of the players. — But at the same time, know what it is that you actually want from that passage.

    Sometimes a color word, or two, are quite enough. ( When I was a very young composer, writing an ensemble accompaniment to a setting of Blake for two solo voices, I struggled to figure out the bowings and finally gave up and left the cello part bare. But I asked the cellist to ‘play it like Scheherezade’ — and by golly I got what I’d hoped for. )

  4. stevetaylor

    What interests me most in Colin’s post is the idea of “parameterizing” musical aspects that are normally left up to convention, or rhetoric, as he writes above. This was pretty much the heart and soul (some would say soullessness) of the integral serial project in the 1950s.

    The artist’s choice to play without vibrato could have reflected a decision not to play at all “rhetorically” since so many other aspects of the piece, including bow position, were parameterized, or “unrhetorical.” Maybe “serial” is just his shorthand way of saying “parameterized” (which is a mouthful).

    This separation of musical gesture and conventional musical rhetoric seems to me to be the link between integral serialism and the more recent “decoupling” of (for instance) embouchure and fingering, which takes it to the next level: not only are we not putting accents and dynamics where they would “normally” go, we’re not even fingering and tonguing together! Sorry if this is a commonplace observation, it just occured to me.

    Although asking players to go against rhetoric they’ve been learning since they were kids is indeed difficult, it doesn’t mean the composer is “anti-performer.” But it does help to ask players nicely, of course. :)

  5. jbunch

    decoupling/integral serialism
    I might be wrong, but my impression was that decoupling a la Aaron Cassidy was an effort to create a sort of unpredictable and wild physicality. I remember him remarking that he doesn’t entirely know what the results will sometimes be (and perhaps couldn’t). Such an approach makes me think of a step-chart for the instrumentalist’s body in which the music is the result of his/her movements rather than of a rhetorical ordering of parameters.

    I like Steve’s observation where it reminds me of the result of rigid parameterization (?) in pieces like Structures which results in something that sounds entirely random to my ears. The results of either methodology can potentially produce, at least experientially, the same types of surface gestures. For my money, I think that’s why Graeme thought Colin’s piece might be serial. Maybe it was an example of (to reference last week’s post) filing “random-sounding” or “non-tendential” under “serial” because that’s often the feeling one gets from integral serial pieces.

  6. pgblu

    Vibrato is one of those sediments of culture that avant-garde composers eschewed, not only for its expressive aura, and its supposed imprecision, but because it’s a difficult parameter to control compositionally. For much of the avant-garde, there was a strong bias toward arrogating control of the entire musical discourse to the composer and leaving the interpreter as little more than an executant. While this is problematic, it seems silly to condemn it: it’s a valid artistic stance which obviously will suffer from the fact that few performers are willing to put themselves into such a position. So what? The composers usually have few illusions about this state of affairs — their chief objective is not to be congenial and collaborative, ‘soulful’ and likeable, but to present an artistic statement that is their own.

    If you don’t like the fruits of this attitude, by all means: don’t listen to them, or don’t perform them, or don’t compose them. History will judge these efforts without your help. [‘You’ being no one in particular]

  7. kacattac

    This was a “reading”? Even a world class performer goes through a process of preparation and evolution when they have to perform a new piece. If this person had been given your piece to prepare a month in advance, they may well have had some original insight by that time and made a few decisions as to how they wanted to interpret the piece, which may or may not have included vibrato.

  8. jbunch

    It’s kind of a common thing to have a big performer come into town and do a workshop of student pieces here. Sometimes they receive the parts in advance, sometimes not, it depends on the arrangement made beforehand between the department and the performer. When BOAC comes to UI to do student readings, they usually get the scores three months in advance or something like that. The purpose of these functions is not really a “performance” per se, but to provide the masterclass participants with a sort of bird’s eye view of the process the performer goes through in engaging with a piece. The insights they provide are often more from a performative point of view than an analytical one. The situation in this case was really no different.


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