What The Composer Wants

What The Composer Wants

The following real-life scenario recently presented itself, which I found so surprising that I wanted to share it with you:

Cast of characters:
Young Composer
Ensemble Administrator A
Ensemble Administrator B

The scene:
Ensemble commissions Young Composer to write a new work. Young composer has never written for the particular instrumentation of Ensemble before, but Ensemble likes Young Composer’s work so much they decide to take a chance (hooray, Ensemble!).

Young Composer delivers the new composition, and Ensemble begins rehearsing. During rehearsals, Ensemble discovers that although the piece is indeed very good, it has some difficult, awkwardly notated passages, and some rather extreme instrumental ranges that, although they are manageable, will not sound as well as they might if they were bumped up or down even just a whole-step or two. Ensemble Administrator A notes these potential problems early on, and wants to ask Young Composer to rework the awkward notation so that it will be easier to read, and to consider altering the extreme pitches. Ensemble Administrator B responds, “Oh no, we shouldn’t do that—we have to let Young Composer do what Young Composer wants to do.”

As much as I appreciate any Ensemble’s commitment to the vision of the composers it works with, this seems like a situation in which Young Composer should be consulted about making these changes. Why? Because chances are high that Young Composer is not aware that there is a problem. Will fixing some notation in Finale or Sibelius so that Ensemble can more efficiently perform the work somehow tarnish Young Composer’s creative voice? No. Will altering the pitches be a huge concession for Young Composer? Depending on why the pitches are there, maybe, but it’s worth talking about with Young Composer, because s/he might not realize that s/he is pushing the limits of those instruments so much. Young Composer might say no, but s/he should have the opportunity to choose. Remember that Young Composer is in new and uncharted territory, and would probably really appreciate some input from Ensemble and Administrators. These are very minor concessions, and this is how composers learn things!

Perhaps the situation could be resolved by Ensemble Administrator A and/or B speaking to Young Composer about making these changes, and possibly showing score samples illustrating what, for instance, a passage of that nature looks like in other scores, so that the composer fully understands the nature of the request. I feel strongly that composers should also take every opportunity to learn from the musicians playing their works, and if a performer presents ideas about how to more effectively express something in the music via notation or some other means, those suggestions should be taken seriously. Neither composer nor performer have all of the answers all of the time, and through respectful, open communication, both can delve into the heart of the musical matter.

Ultimately these issues relate to “what the composer wants” in that fixing them is very likely to produce a successful performance, which is what every composer and every ensemble wants! Some careful changes would also ensure that a composer can take a piece to other ensembles of similar makeup later, with the confidence that the first impression from score and recording will be a positive one.

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3 thoughts on “What The Composer Wants

  1. smooke

    always more info!
    Yes, I’d always want the information. Sometimes it’s a really important note and must be played exactly as determined in the original score. But sometimes transposing a few notes can actually help the underlying musicality shine through. I always like it when players ask me in-depth questions about spots that they find troublesome.


  2. davidwolfson

    Good Lord, that’s a total no-brainer. I’m a middle-aged composer, and I’d still want anyone playing my pieces to let me know if there were problems. Administrator B needs a clue.

    David Wolfson

  3. jeidson

    I agree with David and David here – communication with the composer will almost assuredly result in a better piece, better performance, and better recording. The composer might even say “You know, this is really what I want here,” but at least the issue was brought up rather than buried/ignored. My own experience has taught me that feedback from performers/conductors etc. helps me fix things I might never have considered problems before the rehearsal/gig.

    -Joseph Eidson


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