Who’s in Control?

One of the primary difference between a score by Bach and another by Boulez is in the details.

At what tempo do you play any piece by Bach? A “correct” answer could be “the same tempo as everyone else.” Granted, this is not an absolute. As performance-practice research becomes available, players modify their tempos to reflect the most current research. Aye, this is the bane of historically informed performance.

At what tempo do you play any piece by Boulez? This one’s easy. The correct answer is printed right on the score. Period.

I was excited yesterday to read Frank Oteri’s post on NewMusicbox. He discusses a new music ensemble that sounded more like a “jazz combo” than a “contemporary brass quintet.” As he points out:

Most people will readily admit that an identically notated musical phrase will sound blatantly different if interpreted by a singer or instrumentalist steeped in show tunes, swing, blues, bluegrass, metal, Hindustani classical music, you name it. This is why so-called musical purists find it so disconcerting to listen to rockers cover Cole Porter, or, contrapositively, to hear Ethel Merman in a disco setting.

No matter what composers do, any use of live performers means some loss of control. I don’t, however, know if contemporary composers can handle that. There are three trends that have been going on for quite some time that are trying to fight this:

  1. Composers are exercising as much control over performance as possible through detailed scores.
  2. Performers are practicing until they can be reliably “perfect” in their rendition of such scores.
  3. Composers eliminate live performers altogether by working entirely in an electronic medium.

My wife once suggested that a performer can choose to play a piece their own way after they are able to play it the historically-informed way. The idea is that each performer/ensemble has their own strengths and will likely be able to “sell” a piece better if they can play up those strengths. This practice keeps the music alive, while still informed.

My question now is: Are we, as composers, allowing players to “sell” our pieces in performance?

2 Reader Comments

  1. Emily Williams

    One other thought concering tempo markings….think about Beethoven. He has concrete metronome markings in all of his scores…..however, common performance practice dictates that these do not need to be adhered to. I like this quote from Roger Norrington, “…tempo indications, like all other expressive markings, are meant to guide and inspire the performers, not dictate to them.” Maybe, just maybe, there are inspired performers/conductors/etc. out there that could enhance a composer’s work….but will modern composers allow them?

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