Watch Your Language

Watch Your Language

The use of language in musical scores has been something of an idée fixe these days. It inevitably comes up whenever I talk to someone about music, and even during on-stage conversations for which I’m only in the audience.

In a recent conversation I had with Gabriela Lena Frank (which you will be able to read on NewMusicBox on or after April 1), she talked about how she was able to convince her publisher to include comments in her scores giving players greater detail about the sound she was after in her music, e.g. asking members of a string orchestra to make their instruments sound like Peruvian charangos. In a pre-concert discussion between the conductor Philip Brunelle and composer Dominick Argento I attended in Washington, D.C., Brunelle gushed about how Argento’s scores were filled with arcane directions, all in Italian, which made perfect musical sense once you knew what the words meant.

Once upon a time, Italian was used by composers all over the world to relay tempo and expression indications in musical scores. And almost everyone still has a basic conception of the meaning of words like adagio, presto, sforzando, pizzicato, etc. At some point in the 19th century, some German composers got the nationalist idea that their written music should only contain words from their own language, and words like langsam replaced adagio in their scores. Composers from all over the world followed suit, replacing those once ubiquitous Italian words with terms from their mother tongues. Growing up I thought it was preposterous to include foreign language words in my music, so following the example of American composer-heroes from earlier in the 20th century, I only used English. This, of course, works as long as the musicians playing your music can read English, which is not completely universal but a reasonable fail safe since it’s the world’s most common second language.

Most often, though, I try to avoid any verbal indicators on the score whatsoever and merely include metronome markings, dynamic indications, and an occasional articulation. But even something as abstract as a metronome marking is often charged with hidden subtexts. In a panel with the members of The Calder Quartet, Christopher Rouse admitted that he put an unplayable metronome marking on one of the movements of his First String Quartet knowing it would get musicians to play the music faster than they would have if he put the speed he wanted them to play at. A young composer I met during my residency at the Cornish School in Seattle last month wrote a very chromatic chamber piece using a key signature with loads of sharps that she then kept neutralizing with natural signs and claimed that by doing so she was able to create more tension in the performance.

So, given that your intention is hopefully not 100 percent worked out, since whatever someone plays will and should have an element of them in it as well as you, what is the best way to communicate your intention?

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29 thoughts on “Watch Your Language

  1. lawrence

    There are many strands here to follow, but I’d like to focus on one – the types of indications – symbols or adjectives – one uses to get what one wants from a performance.

    Let’s look for a moment at two extreme types within the vast range of composer-performer models. First is the composer who sits at a computer, trying to coax specific sounds from the machine. For this composer, adjectives are pretty worthless, whatever language they may be in, because the computer wants, ultimately, numeric values to which it can assign absolute responses. Metronome markings, preset dynamics, etc., fulfill the computer’s needs nicely. Words like dolce, ghostly, forceful, mean little or nothing.

    At another extreme is the singer preparing a role in an opera. For this performer, numeric values can be helpful, but ultimately character will trump all. Words like astonished, inquisitive, arrogant, scorrevole can accomplish far more than traditional indications of tempo and dynamics.

    There are, of course, many variants between and around these extreme examples, but my point is simply this: there is no single approach to notation that is correct for all situations. I tend to lean toward the numeric approach when I need to emphasize the mechanistic aspect of my work, and use more adjectives when I want to emphasize the theatrical aspect.

    The example of using a false key signature to increase tension seems like the long way around to an easy destination. One adjective — “tense” — would accomplish the same.

  2. EvanJohnson

    The example of using a false key signature to increase tension seems like the long way around to an easy destination. One adjective — “tense” — would accomplish the same.

    Not at all. Without wanting to dwell on the merits of the particular key-signature strategy in question, I would suggest that writing “tense” on the score would not achieve the desired effect. It’s the difference between acting scared and being scared.

    (It’s also the difference between music-as-sound and music-as-performance, but that’s for another day.)

  3. davidcoll

    At the risk of killing the conversation, i’m taking a larger perspective that might be pretty inocuous- feel free to ignore of course:

    we have two things: one are ideas found implicitly in the material- this can be any type of metrical scheme, graphic notation, “traditional stuff”, etc. This is the richest area (in an ideal rehearsal situation) because most aspects of form can be found here, and interpretation can often take off, just from here.

    Then you have the second thing, which are the “added” things: non-musical ideas, visual ideas, theatrical ideas, what-have-you. These are what we should write in the score, either in the beginning, or as we go. For some pieces this is necessary. However, I feel that the musical material (#1) should almost always inform us somehow of how the two relate- even if they’re somewhat opposed.

    If this isn’t made clear, the relation between the two, either inherently in the music or somewhere else written (not preferred by me), then its gonna be a hard time for the performer to get to the point where ‘interpretation’ is possible- and thats where i stop….more or less, heh..

  4. lawrence

    yes but
    You are right, Evan, and I have to add that the difference between acting scared and being scared is the difference between art and life. If one wants to minimize the difference, then by all means, scare the performer.

  5. davidcoll

    I’m gonna quickly jump into this conversation (cuz its way better than what i just wrote!)

    Lots of percussion instruments and sounds coming out of speakers, and theatrical gestures, are in fact trying to bring what you call life and art together as one and the same. This is very important, and we can find plenty of examples in old guys such as mozart. Just because its in a composition of music doesn’t mean we’re restricted to ‘demonstrating’ emotions. To the contrary, i’d say theres definitely something in certain ‘good’ art where we have life and art temporarily overlap for a moment…yes, being scared is one possibility.

  6. philmusic

    “…what is the best way to communicate your intention? ”

    Since there is usually more than one way to notate anything, I try not to be too fussy so I look for the simplest solution. On the other hand in compositions with theatrical components, well, thats another question.

    Phil Fried

  7. rtanaka

    Performers will react differently to different notations depending on their background and personal preferences. Some people like seeing English, some people like Italian, but they pretty much mean the same thing unless you decide to make it more specific. Termilogies are often interchangable, so whatever’s the clearest to the person looking at it I think usually works for the best.

    I think if you try to understand a lot of the unspoken rules that go on behind the proces of music-making, notational decisions are much easier. Jazz charts often are very vague in their instructions, but performers compensate for it through their understanding of the performance-practices of their particular style. The only way to acquire this is to either educate yourself on the behind-the-scenes oral traditions of the medium, or simply just get to know your peers. Performers usually come to sessions with certain expectations in mind so it helps to be at least sensitive to it, even if you decide to throw in a few wrenches.

    You are right, Evan, and I have to add that the difference between acting scared and being scared is the difference between art and life. If one wants to minimize the difference, then by all means, scare the performer.

    Since the Cold War era, composers have been repeatedly trying these sorts of psychological experiments, but I notice that the affect people strive for when they do these kinds of things often is about tension or confusion. How about something that produces euphoria, peace-at-mind, or something constructive at least? Is the point of all this to simply intimidate the performer? This goes without saying, but whether these feelings translate into something audible has always been questionable as well.

    I guess the difference between being told to be tense and actually being tense is a matter of how one sees the role of the performer being as. If it said “tense” on the score, I would see myself playing the role of that affect, like being an actor. (I’d be in on the joke, at least.) On the other hand, if the notation itself makes me tense, then I’m going to hope that there’s a very good reason for it that makes sense musically.

  8. Alex Shapiro

    Fake-out key signatures and metronome markings?? Oooh! Yesssss! Sadism in concert music! Finally, something the whole world can appreciate. Surely, there’s a TV reality show in this. I can just smell the profits! Psychological warfare with the musicians brave/daring/fool enough to play our music seems only fair. Time for an update on Handel’s “Water Boarding.”

    Just imagine the pre-concert lectures: “…and in the second movement, the first violinist precariously plays the theme while knowing that AT ANY MOMENT the viola may enter in an abysmal key and, in a blazing, noble effort to achieve the impossible, fling his bow precariously close to the cellist’s right eye…” Now THAT’s the way to keep an audience alert.

    Joking aside (wait, no, I never stop joking), I am true to my loquacious, English-speaking self in my scores and never hesitate to add a little reading material in neat, obsessive compulsive boxes to explain what I’m after. Most often, this is just a few words describing how to do something technical in a passage [“slowly pull flute away from mouth while singing”], and other times it is indeed a few Satie-style moments of apparent insanity in which I use adjectives and adverbs in a nearly poetic, yet brief, explosion of emotional intent that I would [desperately] like to convey to the player.

    But damn, I never thought to put in stuff that would scare the daylights out of the musicians. Wow. I’m so glad I read these articles. Life is good.

  9. Colin Holter

    What if Evan had said “attentive” or “energized” rather than “scared?” I doubt any of you would be taking issue so strenuously.

  10. EvanJohnson

    What if Evan had said “attentive” or “energized” rather than “scared?” I doubt any of you would be taking issue so strenuously.

    Indeed. It should be said that when I used the word “scared” I was intending a reference to acting, not musical performance. I don’t know of any music that attempts to literally frighten the performer, but the manipulation of the level of physical and mental engagement with the processes of playing seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable and interesting path to go down.

    In some ways it’s about an attempt to get past the Lisztian ideal of the virtuoso who makes everything seem easy; why shouldn’t what is difficult seem difficult? Isn’t that more interesting?

    (N.B. This is nothing new; see Scarlatti and Brahms for examples of keyboard writing that is difficult for the sake being difficult.)

  11. lawrence

    Ultimately, though, it may be a false dichotomy – being/doing, life/art. After all, who is to say that a musician, playing a well-composed passage marked “tense,” is only acting, and not actually feeling tense? By the same token, who is to say that a musician playing music that is deliberately misleading is going to feel tension?

  12. philmusic

    Um, am I the only one who finds it odd that some would chose to debate the interpretation of compositions they have never heard or seen? Composed by composers who intentions we do not fully know or understand?

    How many hypotheticals does it take to screw in a light bulb? I know the answer if they are from California!

    Phil Fried–something to do with Hot tubs

  13. Chris Becker

    The choreographer I compose for – Rachel Cohen (we just did two performances of a collaborative piece entitled Like Dirt funded in part by the AMC’s Live Music For Dance program) does deal with physical discomfort in her choreography as a means of breaking down facades and connecting audiences to the immediate experience of the movement. What this means is that in addition to choreography, the dancers might also be doing some sort of physical activity (like throwing clay against a wall for instance) resulting in a hybrid of movement and theater that can be unsettling yet inspiring to watch. Her performers are consistently amazing – you can see some photos of our show here

    Now all that said, Christopher’s ploy just sounds like some cute intellectual shit designed for an eventual press release or program note. I mean, did he actually get the effect he wanted from that mysterious key signature? Or did he end up having to clarify the tempo marking? How about, you know, talking to your musicians, taking them out to lunch and or listening to them in return in order to get the results you want?

    Finally, I think how a composer sees their “role” in the production of their music has a huge impact on how they choose to score it. I’m not seeing that discussed in this thread – there are paradigms in place where the lines between composer, performer and improviser are blurred resulting in very contemporary very stimulating hard to classify music…

  14. Frank J. Oteri

    How about, you know, talking to your musicians, taking them out to lunch and or listening to them in return in order to get the results you want?

    Actually they got along fabulously which I believe is why that First Quartet has re-entered the repertoire after so many years of neglect. (It’s a pretty amazing piece, IMHO, btw.)

    What I inferred from the Rouse/Calder conversation at the CMA conference is that by asking for something that the players were never were going to be able to do, Rouse was able to get them to do something they never thought they could. I thought it was pretty ingenious and a tad amusing which is why I shared the anecdote here.

    But, to return to Chris Becker’s sentiment, I’ve always found that performances of my work have gone best when I was there in advance to work directly with the players. Notation only goes so far, at least in my experience. But this is not always a luxury composers have or even necessarily want. (What do you do if you are lucky enough to have your music played regularly all over the world?) A published score is theoretically intended to deliver the composer’s intentions without the composer being there.

    And so the original question remains: What to say? How much to ask for? And (since as these cases show, they are not always the same thing) how to figure out what you’ll get from what you ask for?

  15. Chris Becker

    “A published score is theoretically intended to deliver the composer’s intentions without the composer being there.”

    I hear you and I was reluctant to add anything to this discussion as I do not publish scores for other musicians to interpret.

    I just want to bring up recordings – they are often the only “score” we have for a lot of incredible music. And without a composer or a traditional score and only a recording (or the memory of a performance) – how do you deliver a composer’s intentions to new audiences? I don’t think there’s a single answer – it’s an enjoyable and fascinating challenge for the contemporary performer.

  16. rtanaka

    What if Evan had said “attentive” or “energized” rather than “scared?” I doubt any of you would be taking issue so strenuously.

    That is all and well as long as the understanding of the affect goes both ways. All too often composers think that they’re invoking something in the performer but a lot of the times the gesture is misplaced because they don’t bother finding out what they’ve actually accomplished. Even if, in all honesty, you largely see performers as guinea pigs for psychological experiments, it’ll never leave the realm of psuedo-science if you don’t cross reference the intensions of the experiment with the result.

    But you have to admit, you rarely hear about these types of notations actually invoking anything other than “frustration”, “tension”, “seriousness”, and what have you. And of course if you’re going to write something in a deliberately obscure way, the performers will have to be attentive, although usually for no good reason other than to feed the need for attention of the composer in question. I don’t think a lot of people realize how self-serving and self-centered these types of practices really are.

    If I could invoke happiness through a certain linguistic pattern in my notation, I’d do it in a second. Send it all around the world, create world peace. But it’s not so simple, is it? Whatever affect composers think they’re getting out of these things is mostly a self-induced placebo — psychoacoustics has been around for a fairly long time now but largely with no real breakthrough as of yet.

  17. philmusic

    Frank, while I admire your inclusive taste in music there is a downside to your point of view. By accepting every composer there is also the tacit acceptance of his or her compositional/rehearsal/teaching/personal process.

    It is not really possible to know from a composers music alone what that process may or may not be.

    Many composers (and others) are wonderful to work with and many have valuable insights to impart; yet some composers (and others) are inarticulate, pedantic, inappropriate, and dare I say it — abusive.

    The results may be similar but I know whom I would rather work with.

    Phil Fried

  18. Dean Rosenthal

    Notations, Interpretations, Etc.
    Actually, I was thinking of something like this: “Play like Jack Black” or “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work”.

    But I see no reason to make markings that are obscure, predisposed to difficulty, or, in the case of writing notations of accidentals cancelled or “naturalized” (ha, that’s funny), complete bullshit.

    I take notation and the like seriously, which is why I named this post after an article published over forty-five years ago, before most of us were even composers.

    I suggest that American composers compose in any language they wish to. If you’re German, try writing something in Portuguese, and then get back to Italian and free things up a little. If…

    Our friend Peter Sky ends up writing Alberti bass lines to his “classical” pieces – I see no reason why he shouldn’t notate works in Italian. In other words: each to his or her own, common practice be damned.

  19. jbunch

    First, I don’t see why any of this requires a temper tantrum. Second, I think that tension, fear, seriousness, alienation, even pretension itself are a part of what it means to live in this world and they are part of our psychological experiences, so they are fair game for expression in music. It’s not fair to assume that if someone wants to evoke that affect once that their whole œvre is aimed at making their listeners hate life. This is an entirely different topic – and one that we have broached on several fruitless occasions prior to this.

    Regarding the example that Frank gave, a simple experiment will solve the key signature debacle. If it doesn’t work (without extra explanations), try something else. Honestly – why be incredulous when someone poses a possible solution to a given need?

    More interestingly though, I think it’s important to note that non-verbal instructions are a kind of language too – one in which commensurate meanings and their translation into physical actions or mental states is assumed. Do you mean to say that you can arrange the symbols representing the material construction of a work such that the correct affective response will emerge from all of the ingredients mixed in the prescribed ways? This is only more likely to work to the degree that involuntary archetypal associations between the outcome of your musical recipe exist and are shared between yourself and whoever might be interpreting the piece in question (and probably also the listeners). What if your violinist is so prepared/so good at reading music that they merely get annoyed by all of the deceptive naturalizations? What if they don’t even notice them?

    I’m not sure the question of vernacular versus Italian is a very meaningful one – musicians are smart, they can surmount language difficulties easily. If you’re writing for the Ensemble Intercontemporaine, why not use French? Amusingly I would add that if you only write dynamics on the score – which are Italian – you haven’t really escaped the descriptive phenomenon (what do “soft” or “strong” mean as opposed to “quiet” and “loud?”). And just like spoken language – musical language (whether symbolic or descriptive) has a hard time coping with things for which words or symbols do not yet exist. Any improvising musician knows this first hand. What is a composer to do other than clumsily explain, scrawl, combine symbols in bizarre manners, put an e-mail address in the program notes, trust the performers to create for themselves? The latter is I think the most exciting possibility to me. Performers study “expression ” just as much or more than they do physical execution – why not hand them a few blanks to fill in at their pleasure? The answer to the debacle of managing materials and modes of expression that don’t yield easily to being pinned up on the wall is to let them be. Or put in another way, to write music that doesn’t prescribe every stitch and seam of its content and meaning in the score. To do otherwise seems like a sure fire way to destroy the possibility of genuine, spontaneous, personal, flexible, unique apexes of engagement that performers and listeners might otherwise have had with your work.

  20. greyfeeld

    Ryan T said: “That is all and well as long as the understanding of the affect goes both ways. All too often composers think that they’re invoking something in the performer but a lot of the times the gesture is misplaced because they don’t bother finding out what they’ve actually accomplished.”

    I’m working on a 40-minute opera now, that’s based on a play I had a lead in four years ago (“Van Gogh in Japan” in which I played Degas), and I’ve been thinking a great deal of how to link acting and opera without having it fall into the ‘false heartiness’ of a lot of musical acting. To some extent the scene I’m setting (maybe it’s the reason I’m setting it) is a very quiet scene with Vincent, his brother Theo, his wife Jo, and the painter Emile Bernard; the crux of the opera is how the effect of art on the people who live with artists (in fact, the title of the opera is “Theo”).

    I have still in my memory the sounds of the extraordinary actors who performed the scene, and to some extent have altered the text’s pauses and punctuations to try and guide singers who may not necessarily be actors. I’ve also limited the vocal range of the singers — since I’d rather have singers who can act than ones who can do vocal pyrotechnics.

    I guess my experience as a professional actor is what’s guiding both the detailing of such things as commas and semicolons in writing down the opera per se as well as the vocal line itself. (And Seth Kanor, the actor playing Vincent, was staggeringly good; I can still remember some of his inflections and have built them into the text.)

    Unfortunately, the play got middling reviews, partly because a lot of it was directed in an outsize manner — in fact, in an operatic style …which may have been what gave me the idea to turn its quietest scene into a Janacek-like short opera.

    everbest, Robert Bonotto

  21. rtanaka

    Musical acting and acting from a script is probably a different skill all together. I wrote a piece for 2 singers and piano which involved some spoken word, but I got lucky and found singers who took off with the text. Even for myself, I know I can do somewhat the former, but not the latter.

    It’s tricky, because music is a very emotional thing, and in the end it really should invoke something in the performer. But I don’t really think you’ll be able to accomplish this by throwing in unnecessary sharps or flats. I mean, people get frustrated and angry all the time, so its not particularly all that hard to evoke this types of feelings. And if its the notation itself that’s doing it, then you’re creating resentments that previously did not exist, and largely directed at the composer. I don’t quite see how this sort of thing would ever lead to good practices.

    A lot of people do art because it allows for an emotional release from their daily toils of life. Nobody really complains about the harshness and bleakness of Schostakovich’s music, for example, but he’s drawing his frustrations from the real world and projecting it into his art, rather than the artwork projecting its frustrations into the world. I think that’s the main difference.

  22. philmusic

    I am reminded of a story.

    A well-known pianist who performs recent music was in residence at a collage and was to perform works by the students. The first piece had a title and no other musical indications (tempo/dynamics etc.). The were words “Happy Happy.”

    Since this was a seminar situation it naturally occurred to our pianist to ask what the young composer meant by the phrase “Happy Happy?” The composer replies—“HAPPY HAPPY” Our pianist thinking our composer in this situation was perhaps a little bit shy asked again. Again composer replies—“HAPPY HAPPY.”

    Our performer, slightly befuddled, inquired further, as too what might be the tempo of the work? Our composer replied, and with a little more emphasis this time “HAPPY HAPPY.”

    Our performer persists, “well how fast a tempo would that be?” “HAPPY HAPPY” came the reply and this time our composer is showing no little anger. “Well perhaps the composer would care to demonstrate what he/she means by happy happy? “ “ IT MEANS HAPPY HAPPY!!!-HAPPY HAPPY!!!—HAPPY HAPPY!!!!” losing all patience.

    Our pianist took a deep breath, played the work and moved on to the next one.

    The pianist related to me that in the end the composer was happy happy with the performance.

    Phil Fried

  23. philmusic

    “The words were “Happy Happy.” ”

    My apologies to all. I certainly don’t mean to make light of this discussion, inexperience can lead to new techniques, but sometimes its just inexperience.

    Phil Fried

  24. toddtarantino

    I’m dealing with this issue myself in doing a revision of a piece of mine for thirteen players, its an issue I’ve vacillated on over the years. Originally, I left the score almost entirely blank of performance indications, owing mainly to deadline constraints, but now have been putting in a lot of poetic indications throughout.

    In the end, its really all a quesiton of context. For Bach, we don’t need any indications because the performance practice of that music is completely settled. But when faced with a work of a completely unknown composer, performers don’t have anything to go on. So, for instance, lets say my music was played in California, where its never been heard, by players who, while completely versed in the styles, don’t know me or my music. The economic reality is that the players cannot spend the time to develop a performance practice and given the rate of second performances don’t really have a need to. Thus anything that can help put the idea of the piece, phrase or gesture across, whether “striving, as if in slow motion”, “brutale”, “wie ein hauch” or whatever can give that extra something that imprecise notation can only hint at.

    That said, some terms may not be the best. To pick on the current bugbear: “tense”, I think there would be better ways to get that across; “tense” indicates a state of being and one that isn’t conducive to playing tension filled music.

    Now this may not be how you want your music to be played and there is nothing wrong with that.

    As for the idea of psychological games, that’s another issue.


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