Blog: Writing Music Performers Enjoy

5/27/11 - Writing Music Performers Enjoy

I have been incredibly lucky to have received what I consider to be exceptional training in both composition and orchestration. My teachers have all been accomplished composers and excellent pedagogues who have given me some very sound fundamentals upon which to build a (hopefully successful) career in composition. Two of my teachers heavily emphasized orchestration skills in their lessons - Don Grantham (he helped write the book...) and James Barnes (who is also writing a book on orchestrating for band). As an aside let me just go on the record and state that I do not feel that there is another living composer with as much creativity and skill in orchestrating for wind bands as James Barnes. While I love lots of contemporary wind band writing and know that there are some amazing composers out there, Jim has an uncanny ability for color, intensity, and emotion in his band scoring.

The reason for this blog post is a quote I read this morning on Kyle Gann's incredible blog (comments section, Kyle's reply to #1):

And I do pride myself on writing pieces that the performers enjoy playing, which 1. many composers don't care about...

Kyle's words took me by surprise even though his comment is sometimes all too painfully true - it often feels like composers do not consider performers at all. This is especially true in the age of MIDI playback; to wit, take the radically successful composer* currently making fistfulls of cash in the band market yet they cannot read a score or hear it without MIDI playback in a private composition lesson. If the computer can play it, then obviously it is possible, right?

I suppose what also piqued my interest with Kyle's comment was that I felt a kinship to a composer whose writings I greatly admire and also enjoy his music, although we do not share the same approach (which is another topic for the next blog). Here was someone whose work I enjoy, saying that they had the same core beliefs that I do. A quote I heard for 10 years in lessons also comes from Barnes, paraphrasing: "Make the performer sound good and they will make YOU sound good, too." I have taken this to heart and I have never written a note for, say, a clarinet - only clarinet players. While I feel that I write my fair share of difficult music, it is never hard for the sake of hard; the notes are only as difficult as they need to be to get my message across to the audience. I strive to communicate to the performer since they are communicating for me to the audience. This approach has served me quite well so far, garnering a good rapport with performers and some fine performances of pieces I consider to be, well, mediocre. Again, if you make them sound good - they will return the favor.

If I had to break it down into a numbered list (who doesn't love lists, right?), my goal for each composition would be to appeal to the following groups:
1: audience - Hopefully they like the work; shock value and intentionally garnering negative reviews do not interest me.
2: performer - Hopefully they enjoy rehearsing the work** and feel it shows off their abilities and rewards practice time.
3: self - This could be #1 since I am writing to fulfill a personal desire, but I consider audience-performer before my own needs.
4: composers/theorists - While they are my good friends and colleagues, I am not interested in impressing them with theoretical concepts.
5: musicologists - Self-explanitory, not that they will ever be researching my music (there's too much money in re-writing the same books!)

Now the hard part - what do performers enjoy playing? This is the tough part of capturing the magic of each piece, and impossible to write an accurate list since all performers have different tastes. I can say that I do feel guilty when writing "boring" parts for players, especially in a large ensemble setting. I try to give every single player something important to do - I want them to feel like there is a real reason for them to be sitting in rehearsal that day, to feel that the piece could not succeed without their contribution (no matter how small). That is part of my approach to making a piece fun in a setting with many players, but it is a bit more tricky writing chamber music. As a general rule I try to make my intentions as clear as possible with regards to notation and part preparation, to make technical passages as easy as I can (easy key areas, writing idiomatically, avoiding instrument-specific problems) and allowing performers to sound as beautiful as possible on lyrical passages.

This is one reason I tend to avoid multiphonics, as sometimes they seem to be inserted as an afterthought and/or completely destroy the instrumental line. Several pieces I have heard in the past few months seem to do either one or both of those scenarios - a beautiful section followed by some squonking and farting oboes/clarinets, then back to the lyrical stuff. It is almost as if a great wind quintet was performing and someone suddenly opened the door to the 7th grade practice room. I have no problem with weird sounds, multiphonics, extended techniques, or anything else you can dream up as long as they serve a purpose. Including them just to be modern or hip is just not appealing to my tastes. With that said, I am considering including multiphonics in my next chamber piece for winds and hopefully you, the audience, will feel that they serve a purpose and add to the overall whole of the piece rather than distract from what otherwise would have been a fine performance. In closing, if I have managed to make a fine performer sound as if they are struggling or sound anything less than their best, then I have not done my job as a composer - and I certainly don't enjoy feeling that way.

Comments welcome - send an email, tweet, or post on the Facebook page.

* - True story, not my own, not gonna name names.

** - One of my favorite comments working with Paul Stevens on the horn concerto was when he told me he sat down and played the piece all the way through on the first read-through, even though it was tough as nails. THAT is what I am talking about, folks!