Sunday, November 16, 2008

On Musical Detail (1)

This past Thursday (November 13, 2008), four of our students had a wonderful opportunity to have their compositions read by the Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal (ECM) under the direction of Véronique Lacroix, artistic director and conductor of the ensemble.

All composition/theory majors had been invited in early September to apply for this opportunity with the understanding that only four could be selected. A special composition course was set up for the four students, which consisted of a weekly two-hour meeting with Dr. Godin and myself, with the aim of composing a chamber music work (flute, bass clarinet, trombone, violin, and percussion) that the ECM would read.

One of the things that Dr. Godin and I stressed frequently (to the point of nagging, probably!) was the importance of musical detail in preparing a score and parts — It is an essential ingredient in conveying a sense of professionalism and compositional competence to the musicians performing your music.

Most of us have our music performed by friends when we start out as composers, and friends tend not to nit-pick too much when it comes to missing details. However, if your goal is to have your music performed by professionals, a thoroughly detailed-score is essential. Plus, even friends would appreciate a clear, well-presented score.

You've probably heard the saying that you don't get a second chance to make a first impression? Well, this truism applies to the scores you prepare as well, and the element that probably influences performers/conductors the most when making an initial evaluation of a score by an unknown composer is the professionalism in the appearance of the score, AKA musical detail. And, no matter how wonderful your music may be, if it doesn't make it past a conductor's initial evaluation stage, it isn't going to be performed.

The point of today's post is simple: If the score is impeccably prepared, it creates a good first impression; if it isn't, it the composer faces an uphill battle to gain the confidence of the conductor and performers.

Two more analogies, just because I am fond of analogies!

If you "finish" your composition without spending sufficient time to fix score detail issues, such as missing or inconsistent dynamics, articulations, bowing and breath slurs, etc., sub-optimal or inconsistent enharmonic spellings, ideas notated in an overly-complex way (see the end of today's post for an example), or other problems such as out-of-range notes, long runs of notes for a wind instrument that leave no room for the performer to breathe, string double stops that are unplayable, trombone glissandi that are impossible, etc., then…
  1. It's like having two strikes against you before you even step into the batter's box.
  2. It's like showing up for a job interview with the remnants of your breakfast distributed generously and equitably over your face and clothes. :p
Of course, even an impeccably-prepared score needs to have something else going for it if a professional ensemble to commit to actually programming it on a concert, but the point is that an absolutely brilliant composition is unlikely to draw much interest or support if the score is poorly prepared.

Unless you're famous, in which case none of this applies... :)

In the workshop, issues that kept coming up and slowing down the rehearsal, which was painfully embarrassing at times for the student composers, included:
  • Missing, unclear, or inconsistent dynamics;

  • Missing, unclear, or inconsistent articulations;

  • Missing rehearsal letters in some parts;

  • Use of English words (i.e., smoothly) as opposed to more standard, Italian terms (legato), which was an issue because the ensemble is predominantly francophone;

  • The impracticality of including a page full of performance notes at the start of the score (partly because not all musicians read English, but partly because, as we were told, the conductor and musicians are unlikely to actually read these instructions! "If it relates to the music," we were told, "then put it in the music!"

  • The use of a key signature in a transposed part of atonal music. Notation programmes sometimes insert a key signature into transposed parts, even if you don't want key signatures in parts! If the music is atonal and there is no key signature in the score, there should be none in the parts; if your notation programme has inserted one you need to remove it. Also, a key signature is relatively rare in contemporary music, and, because of that, it was completely overlooked by one of the performers).

  • Questions on breathing, bowing, phrasing, and pedalling (although there was no piano in the ensemble, there were nevertheless pedalling issues; percussion instruments included a high-hat, vibraphone, and timpani, and there was a question as to how to pedal all three when this particular percussionist had only two feet, and elected to use one on which to stand!).
All of these missing or unclear musical details resulted in valuable (and expensive! This was a professional ensemble whose time we were paying for) rehearsal time lost, a significant concern when each composer had only a half hour of rehearsal time available. For that reason alone, it is important to produce more detailed scores.

But they also resulted in some profoundly uncomfortable moments for the student composers; having a conductor point out flaws in your score in front of the ensemble and all other workshop attendees is not a very pleasant experience, even if the conductor does so graciously, which she did.

Unfortunately, many conductors and performers are not nearly as polite, in which case the situation can become downright mortifying. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience!

Two more issues that I don't believe came up during the workshop readings, but which come up all the time in our class, are
  1. Strange enharmonic spellings, and
  2. Unmusical rhythm notation,
The blame for these is often placed on whatever computer notation software that a student happens to be using, but IMO, it often comes down to a combination of carelessness and disregard for basic conventions learned in music rudiments courses (like notating rhythms to reflect the main beat and its subdivisions).

A good rule of thumb: Avoid information overload. Find the simplest way to notate your ideas. Consider the following two examples; they sound the same, but one is a lot easier to read than the other because it has less information:

So, as we reach the home-stretch of the final project for this course, I encourage you all to learn vicariously from the workshop experience of your fellow students and aim to produce professional-quality, musically detailed and easily-understood scores! And, if that is not incentive enough, remember that your mark will be better if you manage to do this, as indicated in the course outline.


Kim Codner said...

Honest to god this was one of the most intense compositional situations i have ever been in.

Mostly because any other composition i've written involved me playing or the performers being my friends/groups that would come to me and ask about certain details.

When the ECM played my piece i was quite nervous being in the hotspot... literally.. right in front of them while they sight read my piece, "Spelunking".

From this experience i will definitely share with others that details are SO crucial.
I thought i had everything in there, but *coughstupidfinalecough* left out some rehersal markings and it would have gone more smoothly if i had spent an extra hour proof reading the parts a second time and not trusted finale would show the details to be printed out.

I thought it was ok to use words like dry instead of secco and smoothly instead of legato... BUT alas... an important thing is that not every group who will play your piece is fluent in english. Musical terms like legato and secco would have worked MUCH better in my case, as this group was from montreal, and spoke predominantly french. Oh snap.

Those are my thoughts!

To create a thoroughly detailed, precise score is an accomplishment, because you will in the end get what you want usually with no confusion.

Melissa B. said...

Ha, before reading this journal I was thinking to myself, "hey, I should probably start adding some details before I finish this piece".

I am committed to adding every detail possible before I move forward. With that said, the piece is due Friday so I'm going to have to get my butt in gear.

Thanks for posting this.

Scott said...

spot on Clark.
One of the things that cannot be stressed enough is details and how they relate to a performer's interpretation of a score. I would also recommend thinking about details from the BEGINNING of the compositional process, rather than adding them at the end. If your earliest conception of a texture or gesture includes dynamic and articulation along with pitch and rhythm, you have just DOUBLED the possibilities of variation/development in your composition!
It's really all about caring for what you write - more details immediately gives a better perception about how much you care about your own music. And if your score looks like you care, performers are more likely to put in the care and effort required to ensure a good performance.

Jessica Blenis said...

Thanks for posting this Clark, and especially for making a list of what we should keep in mind of adding while we compose. I'll definately keep all of this in mind while I compose my pieces from now on.

Melissa B. said...

i just wanted to ask something.

What's so wrong with using english terminology?
Lots of other composers wrote in their native tongue.
Debussy wrote in French, Bach wrote in German, Ives wrote in English... I'm just curious as to why it's such a big deal to write in Italian or German when our primary language is English.

Just curious! :)

Melissa B. said...

(Sorry, I don't know how to edit)

I understand that some terms are standard, like you mentioned in the post, but are we allowed to mix it up between English and Italian? Should we keep it all Italian or German?

I'm a little confused by this, actually.

Also, I had no idea that the happy faces blinked at you. Interesting.

Clark Ross said...

Melissa, that's a fair question.

Let's start with the following assumptions:

(1) A musical score is written in code. It is a code that not everyone can understand, even excellent musicians sometimes (we frequently hear that the Beatles couldn't read music, for example).

(2) What we as composers are trying to do is to communicate our intentions as clearly as possible, so that performers trained in the interpretation of this code can translate it into music, and make it sound the way we want.

Everything I wrote about in my blog stems from these assumptions, especially #2.

With regard to language, it is true that composers write instructions in dozens of different languages in musical scores, like English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, Italian, etc.

But of all these, the one language that is most widely understood by classical musicians, at least when it comes to performance instructions (tempo, dynamic, etc.), is Italian, so, as a rule of thumb, it is best (as in 'most practical') to give these kinds of instructions in Italian.

I would guess that most classical music students in North America are not well-enough versed in German to understand many German terms found in scores, and French instructions may not be widely understood outside of Canada and other French-speaking countries either.

English instructions are readily understood throughout most of North America, but, as was pointed out, they were not always clear in the case of the ECM since they predominantly spoke French.

So, in the case of text instructions, it seems most practical to use the code that is most-readily understood by classical musicians, which is Italian.

That said, if there are times when the instruction you want is not a commonly-used Italian term, then by all means, write it in English! But just be sure that there isn't an Italian term that conveys the gist of your meaning before reverting to English.

Heidi said...

composing become much more intimidating when one anticipates professionals to actually play one's pieces. I didn't realize how comforting it is to know the people (probably the only people) who play my compositions. This is a poor attitude which I will endeavour to amend.

Neal said...

I have to say, there is no point were a little more proofreading won't help. I went into the session with perhaps a little too much confidence, and I was stunned by how much I had missed.
Being clear is also priceless, be the devil's advocate and assume that anything that can go wrong (misinterpretations for example) will go wrong.
Lastly, I can't stress enough the importance of complete composing. When you're writing, even a rough draft, put everything in. Even if it's not the wording you will use in the end, cover all the bases from the beginning and you'll have less to miss come proofreading time.
Best of luck to everyone, and don't be afraid to write exactly what you want. Worst case scenario: the musician tells you it's impossible and you find a compromise.

Melissa said...

Details are a hard thing for me. I am always afraid I will over load the mind of my players, but I have to remember that it is my music that they are playing and that they can't hear all the nuances that I do inside my head (you think that would be an obvious thought... apparently not for me!) When I'm composing I often forget about the little things, because I'm just focusing on how the notes and rhythms work. This is definitely something I need to work on!

Thanks for the Hints!

Jill A. said...

I'm with Melissa on this one! I totally admit that when i'm composing I tend not to think of the big picture in terms of dynamics and articulations. Usually i'm more concerned with getting something written, concentrating on melodies, harmonies...generally just the notes. I know that this is not the best way of going about composing, but sometimes I actually forget about the "little" things, which in the long run really aren't that little!
I'm trying to work on including dynamics and other details in my compositional thought process. That way there isn't any doubt about my true intentions within a piece and it will also help when it comes to editing in the end.

saird.larocque said...

I think that having tons of detail in your piece could be good but it depends on what you really want. My last piece and to some extent my first one I wanted the expression and dynamics to be improvised by the performer. Should I even do this? How many players would think to improvise things when given a simple part with no dynamics or anything? Hmmm. Should the expression in the piece be that of the composer or the performer?

Robbie b said...

That is a really cool point that saird brought up. How acceptable is it for a composer to leave the dynamic and expression to the composer?
In my musical cliche, I left out dynamics and expressions on the last page by mistake and ended up giving it to andrew coffin without it. Once I went to hear him play it the first time, he had a totally different take on the ending both dynamically and expressively: He ended the piece on a double forte with an accell, while I had planned a rit and a piano. I really enjoyed it both ways and almost couldn't choose what to do!
Would leaving out these elements just come across as slack, rush and indecisive? It might be a cool exercise to try out some time. You can have the class write a composition each, but leave out once element entirely. And then have different people perform it and see what it comes out like.
just a thought!

Michael Bramble said...

Regarding details, Dr. Ross said something early on that I find is the biggest truth to the matter. I find that details should be added as the music is initially composed, not added as an after thought. When one is in the moment crafting the music at the time they should also include what they want the interpretation to be, that way it is the most accurate to what they imagined. Just a thought.

SarahClement said...

I don't understand why the use of a key signature is bad. I mean, it may not be standard for modern compositions but it is for all the other ones. If your piece is even remotely tonal, wouldn't a key signature be helpful?

Clark Ross said...

Sarah, your question made me realize that I didn't make my point about key signatures very clearly. I have subsequently revised it, as follows:

"The use of a key signature in a transposed part of atonal music. Notation programmes sometimes insert a key signature into transposed parts, even if you don't want key signatures in parts! If the music is atonal and there is no key signature in the score, there should be none in the parts; if your notation programme has inserted one you need to remove it. Also, a key signature is relatively rare in contemporary music, and, because of that, it was completely overlooked by one of the performers)."

Hopefully that's clearer!

(And, to answer your question, there is nothing wrong with key signatures in tonal or modal music! In this case, however, it was something stuck in the part by Sibelius or Finale, and it didn't make sense because the music wasn't "in" a key.)

Kyle Andrews said...

Finishing the score and making it look professional is the most challenging part for me. Whenever I finish writing the piece I have lost patience with it and want to take a break from it, but then it's due, so I usually end up rushing the final touches.

However with regards to enharmonic spellings and articulations slurs etc. It's very important I find do do that as you write the piece, because otherwise you will forget what you wanted, or forget entirely. Even though this makes the writing process slower, I feel like it is a must do write those details as I write.

Andre McEvenue said...

I suppose that finishing a score is not unlike writing an essay. Even if you have good ideas, a professor is not usually willing to dig through your sentences to find them if they are unclear.

I am always gracious for student performers who point out errors, or oddities in my scores. I suppose one of the goals I have while I am in school is to develop my skills of music proofreading to a level where I can minimize these errors as much as possible. It seems like such a shame for so much work to go into a piece of music, and them have your reputation soiled from one little error.

Flutiano said...

This post is a fabulous reminder about the importance of musical detail in the score. I like Andre's analogy to writing an essay - your reader is unlikely to notice if your punctuation is elegantly selected, with colons, semicolons, commas, and periods making your prose flow nicely and convey clear meaning. However, if you have punctuation errors, they will trip up the reader and potentially alter the meaning or otherwise make your message unclear.

One thing that students often do with essays before they hand them in is get somebody to help them proofread it. Logically, we could do the same with musical compositions, particularly before reading sessions that are of high stakes and/or limited time (of which a professional ensemble with half an hour to read your work is both!).

An elegantly crafted score, with clear musical details and nice fonts, is not necessarily easy, and there is a highly likelihood it will go unnoticed if done well, but it is important. Sometimes I would rather be starting work on a new composition, rather than trying to make spacing work well, etc. However, a beautiful presentation does give the illusion of bringing the work to a new level, and their is pleasure and pride to be had in creating a nicely presented score.

Jack Etchegary said...

Interesting to read an actual experience involving critique of musical detail in composition. I have not had the opportunity of having an ensemble perform my music, yet can definitely tell from the several mishaps pointed out here that attention to detail is crucial. The mention of first impression really stuck out to me as it made me realize the impressions I make when I see a poorly prepared score. I was reminded of a Wind Ensemble piece that the MUN WE is currently working on (I will not mention the title or composer to be respectful), in which the percussion parts are an absolute mess - one cymbal notated as 4 different notes in a single part, furthermore these notes being on 4 or 5 ledger lines. As well as articulations and dynamics on top of each other, note and rest clashes, missing fermatas, etc. I was quick to judge both the quality of the composition and the composer, and immediately thought things such as "this is careless work!" or "this person must've spent 5 minutes on these percussion parts!". In retrospect, the piece was actually quite well written and idiomatic, despite the detail issues. I was then reminded of what I had learned in Psychology 1001 on the topic of social attributions. When we see someone make an error, we quickly make dispostional attributions (blame them directly) whereas when we ourselves make an error we make situational attributions because we want to distance ourselves from being at fault and hold ourselves at high praise.

I think in this instance of musical detail discussion, we should be striving to create music that is seamless and flawless, because justifiably nearly 100 percent of attributions/judgments will be dispositional, as unfourtunate as that may be. Often there is no room to regard a musical detail error in a situational way, and this can have dire consequences on making a first impression with an ensemble/director. I will certainly continue to remain aware of the importance of musical detail.

Pallas A said...

As a coded means of communication, it is way easier to understand written musical information than to convey it, which is why I think many composers struggle with making sure there is enough understandable musical detail. I was discussing this with a friend, and she said that I might not notice missing musical details as a composer, but I would certainly be quick to call it out if I was a performer, and it's true. I know how rhythms should look when they are grouped in a certain way or how accidentals should be so that I can read them with relative ease. But if I were to express them in my own composition, I could easily fool the performer of the music into thinking that I possess practically no basic music rudiments. I think that making the differences between musician (where one conveys music with sound) and composer (where one conveys music with ink) can be equated to formal writing versus colloquial talking. Both can convey the same principle, but one is unlikely to get called out for misusing who/whom in a speech or ending a spoken sentence with a preposition, whereas these issues are unacceptable in formal writing.