When I Say Forte

When I Say Forte


In September 2010, the fantastic violinist Matt Albert posted to Thirteen Ways, the blog of the peerless new music ensemble eighth blackbird. In Albert’s post, “How Loud Is Loud,” he posited a framework for interpreting the dynamics found in musical scores.

In Albert’s system, everything begins with the mezzo-forte mark, which he perceives as meaning a “full sound” with “no extra effort.” From there, everything increases to fortissimo, or “max intensity” and decreases to pianissimo, or “intensely soft, like a scream from a mile away or a locked room.” He conceives of fortississimo and pianississimo as special markings, which necessitate sacrificing sound quality for effort so that, for example, in the quietest sections we accept dropped notes as the price for a line that approaches inaudibility.

I keep returning to Albert’s definitions, because I find that they accurately reflect my personal predilections as a composer. As I first began having my music performed by musicians outside of my immediate circle of friends, I invariably would ask them to exaggerate the dynamics. As I began coaching student and peer chamber ensembles who were learning my scores and those of my colleagues, in my attempts to make their interpretations more lively and dramatic I returned over and over again to this advice until it began to feel like a mantra. When performers apply Albert’s methodology, I no longer need to ask for this sort of exaggeration and can immediately turn to more subtle aspects of interpretation.

I’ve shared Albert’s post with many of my classes, and I find that the student performers can be surprisingly resistant to the idea of sacrificing tone quality for dynamic contrast. The students often declare that they can produce sound at higher decibel levels only through the purity of their timbre. Not only are they are afraid of their teacher’s responses, but they also worry that creating less than beautiful sounds might lead to poor habits and infiltrate their general musical style. In response, I argue—perhaps unconvincingly—that sometimes the physical dynamic level matters less than the perceived effort and that ugly sounds can be an important tool in our expressive repertoire.

I’ve become intrigued by this divide between the will of the performer towards beautiful tone and of the composer towards expressive variety. Certainly these two goals can coexist and even can enhance each other in order to create music that approaches the sublime; however, at times they appear incompatible. It’s when I’m in these latter situations that I can find myself at a loss. While I carefully choose all of the notes and rhythms within a score, I would happily sacrifice a few of the black dots and lines in service of enhanced expressivity. If asked to choose between two performances of my music where one is flat but accurate while the second interprets the score in an original way (derived from an analytic reading) while flubbing some details, I will prefer the more expressive performance every time.

As a composer, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work nearly exclusively with musicians who want to delve into my music in order to pull out the expressive qualities latent within the score. As an audience member, I’ve found that each year brings what seems like exponential growth in the number of ensembles and soloists who are prepared to create dramatic performances of brand new works. I believe that the influence of consummate professionals like Albert and the current members of eighth blackbird (among many other phenomenally gifted and intelligent musicians devoted to new music) has been a major factor contributing to this heartening trend. Thanks to these people, more and more musicians implicitly understand what I mean when I say forte.


I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate fellow Peabody faculty member Kevin Puts, who learned yesterday that he has been awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his opera Silent Night. Kevin shared a video of the Minnesota Opera production with the Peabody Composition seminar and I found the music to be incredibly beautiful, effective, and moving. I’m very happy to see that his incredible work has been recognized in this fashion.

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2 thoughts on “When I Say Forte

  1. Jon

    Good post, David! This has long been one of my great frustrations with classical musicians and classical pedagogy. As a clarinetist, I have been forced to vastly increase the high end of my dynamic range by playing klezmer in brass- and drums-heavy bands, and bass clarinet in a heavy metal bass clarinet quartet. So I have learned first-hand that it is possible to play much much louder than most classical clarinetists would ever dare. It drives me crazy when I hear so many classical clarinetists who seem completely unwilling to do anything that might ever so slightly corrupt their beautiful tone — it’s not even unwilling necessarily, they just don’t even believe it’s possible. It’s such a limited pallet, there’s so much more that the instrument can do!! The problem lies deep in the classical approach to training musicians and the dynamics of orchestra auditions. When technical and tonal perfection is the necessary first step to even being considered for an orchestral job, it’s no wonder that performers are reluctant to do anything that could imperil that sound they’ve worked so hard to achieve. While many lament the decline of symphony orchestras, I think nothing could be better for revitalizing classical musicians’ approach to their instruments than the decline of orchestral playing as the default career path. The more classical musicians get experience in other genres of music that accept or even embrace grittier, less “beautiful” sounds — jazz, world music, folk, free improv, etc. etc. — the more they will discover the full range of sounds their instruments are capable of, and the more they can get out of the rut of beauty-at-all-costs encouraged by their classical training.

  2. Smooke

    Dear Jon,

    Thank you for this response. I agree that exposing young performers to aesthetics outside the orchestral tradition might be the solution. Once they fully internalize the klezmer clarinet sound or the fuzz guitar sound, they’ll be better able to recognize when a composer wants something other than a pure tone. And it never hurts to have more tools in one’s belt.



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