It may be old news to some of regular music blog readers, but I think some of the tips by conductor Kenneth Woods – Oh no! More tips…. Now it’s the poor composers…. might be of interest to S21 readers.  The rehearsal tips alone are something every composer should memorize.  The notation tips, might be controversial, but they’re what I have been doing since I got our of grad school.  Always using Italian for instructions, notating as simply as possible, etc.  His story about the recent composer in residence process as seen through an arts community was also fascinating.  Thanks to Maestro Woods for sharing his expertise with the new music community!

51 Responses to “Conductor Kenneth Woods – Tips for Composers”
  1. I have read with interest your ongoing debate about the usage of Italian terms. For what it is worth, I have just finished recording a film score in Prague and it was most useful to be able to direct the Czech conductor in Italian terminology (and interesting to see him passing it on also in Italian to his Czech orchestra!) Italian is quite simply the lingua franca of the musical world and there is absolutely NO pretension whatsoever in its usage among professionals of different nationalities who use it simply as a tool in communicating a composer’s wishes.

  2. Walter Ramsey says:

    Funny some people are taking this friendly and well-meaning comments so personally, and feeling the bitter bile rise into their mouths. I don’t think he wrote his list with Sequenza21 in mind? So he didn’t write it “to” any of you. And one gets the distinct impression, that he has written his list based on personal experience with composers, I guess unprofessional ones, not some imagined nitwit. If one takes such innocuous comments as threats to one’s perceived individuality and originality, perhaps one should reassess one’s perceptions!

    I stand by my earlier Italian comments.

    Walter Ramsey

  3. David Toub says:

    Erik, sure you pay your taxes. But you’re also free to bitch about it at will. And you’re also free to take a principled stand and not pay them when x% goes to the B1 bomber, the cruel horror in Iraq, stupid abstinence-only education, etc. And you’re free to call attention to the incompetence of our government by your actions.

    I think composers need to vent about the current idiocy known as the symphony orchestra. Kyle’s 100% correct—I just don’t think he went far enough, since he’s a gentleman and all that. The system is corrupt and worthless. I love Brahms as much as the next person, perhaps even more so, but do we need so much Brahms, Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. when the vast majority of orchestras won’t even play Webern (who died in the 40’s), let alone someone who is actually still living and breathing.

    I think that sums it up—symphony orchestras are a relic, playing the works of dead people for an audience who just doesn’t give a damn about listening to anything that might ”stretch their ears,“ to paraphrase Ives (and outside of a very few works, these groups don’t even play much of the music of one of our greatest composers ever).

    I look all the time at the list of works of Feldman that are coming up for performances. Guess what—other than a rare day, 95% or more of these performances seem to me to be taking place in Europe, particularly Germany and the UK. There are times when the are no US performances of Feldman’s music, and when it happens, it’s usually the Viola in My Life series. Nice enough, but how many orchestras would have the balls to perform Violin and Orchestra or Orchestra?

    So someone referred to his music as ”anti-Bruckner.“ BFD.

    I remember the premiere in Avery Fisher Hall of Reich’s Tehillim (the orchestral version). I give Mehta credit for at least programming it, but the performance was horrible (listening to the tape kills me). And it’s not like Reich gets played there a few times a year. Both Glass and Reich have written extensively for orchestra. Regardless of whether or not one thinks highly of their recent work, not to have them played consistently (I mean, how many symphonies is Glass up to now? He’s done a lot) is a shanda (Inuit for ”scandal).

    I’m not saying orchestras shouldn’t play Brahms. But they do have an obligation as a public good to serve living composers and those whose works are underperformed (ever heard much by John Becker? I didn’t think so, and it’s a shame.

    So yes, music directors keep choosing the same old, same old. And people wonder why the orchestra is dying overall?

  4. Erik K says:

    “I’d warn him about what reactions he’d get, but commend him for at least being different.”

    I’m reminded of the “You non-conformists are all alike” bumper sticker. Applauding someone just for being different is like giving someone a Certificate of Achievement when the real winners got medals.

    “What we composers would like to see: an admission that orchestras and conductors do a TERRIBLE job of selecting what composers’ music to play.”

    Wait, like Brahms and whatnot? Or Sam Jones and whatnot?

    “…they end up playing mostly the worst musical repertoire in the history of mankind”

    Wait, seriously. Are we talking about Brahms?

    “What composers need: advice on how to get an orchestra to notice us, how to get our foot in the door and get some music played.”

    I’ve played dozens of new works for orchestra, and I would guess that over 75% of them come with Italian terms in tow. As a performer, it’s just what we’re accustomed to seeing.

    “…as if ANY of us has ever gone into an orchestra rehearsal badmouthing Schoenberg or anyone else.”

    I played a piece once where the composer spoke for about five minutes about how he viewed his music as “anti-Bruckner.” He was speaking strictly in terms of repetition and scoring, but the bottom line is I remember Bruckner, and I don’t remember his name or a thing about his “anti-Bruckner” music.

    “We’re all painfully aware that orchestras consider living composers a kind of scum only worth condescending to now and then.”

    But that’s just the way the game is played. As a composer, you’re at the mercy of the conductor. Is it right? Not at all. Is it fair? Even more not at all. But is it reality? Yes. If you have tips from a conductor who has observed certain trends over the years, it is certainly up to you to accept them or disregard them as you see fit. You can view them as the conductor “looking down on you.” But there are two things that must be kept in mind: 1) Taking a principled stance is terrific, and duly noted. I like principles as much as the next guy, but your Certificate of Achievement is in the mail. 2) Conductors will absolutely be looking down…at someone else’s score.

    Conductors have WAAAAAAAAY too much power. That is an absolute fact. But so does the IRS, and I still pay my taxes.

  5. Kyle Gann says:

    Mr. Woods, I won’t argue with your characterization of my remarks. But think about why we’ve reacted the way we have. You read my blog, but your orchestra is never going to play any of my music, nor probably that of any composer in this forum. And you’ve given us a list of really obviously dumb things that, IF your orchestra were ever going to play our music, we should avoid doing to keep from embarrassing you. Why would we find this rather demeaning hypothetical exercise entertaining? What composers need: advice on how to get an orchestra to notice us, how to get our foot in the door and get some music played. What we composers would like to see: an admission that orchestras and conductors do a TERRIBLE job of selecting what composers’ music to play. We’d like the people who run orchestras to admit that by taking recommendations from the same old good-old-boy network all the time they end up playing mostly the worst musical repertoire in the history of mankind, and 90 percent of their new repertoire from just a tiny number of names over and over ad nauseum – and maybe ask us how they could locate composers whose music is more interesting and even more playable and accessible and successful with audiences. Instead we get told to make sure our parts are readable – as if ANYONE in this forum has EVER handed an ensemble parts that weren’t readable, as if ANY of us has ever gone into an orchestra rehearsal badmouthing Schoenberg or anyone else, and as if any of us had a chance at your orchestra anyway. We’re all painfully aware that orchestras consider living composers a kind of scum only worth condescending to now and then, and your list of obvious no-nos does little more than hammer that fact home even harder. Instead of assuming we’re all antisocial malcontents who are likely to blow our big chance when and if we ever get it, why not give us some advice that would really help us get our music played?

  6. Hi Ken, I didn’t really want to come across quite that aggressive, because I fully believe you’re all for what you program. But to take up your gallery simile: musical culture as a whole may not be like a gallery, but the orchestra most definitely is.

    Indeed, your orchestra can play the minimalist AND the atonalist, and certainly if they’re Adams and Carter. They write what I would call classical music. But can it play Charlemagne Palestine, Christian Wolff, Horatiu Radulescu, Conlon Nancarrow, Brian Ferneyhough AND a Strauss waltz with the true waltz lilt? I find it hard even to imagine a specialized smaller ensemble that could do all of that.

  7. David Toub says:

    Very thoughtful response. Some comments:

    but just ask yourself if ten years from now when your new piece is being recorded in Bulgaria by a Malaysian conductor, if you might have been better off using terminology that all the performers would understand.

    I dunno—I’d be pretty happy and honored to have a Bulgarian orchestra record something of mine as overseen by a Malaysian conductor. It’s those damned folks in the small nation of Tuva who louse my stuff up every chance they get; too much throat singing and overtones.

    Solving a practical problem (figuring out the most idiomatic way of achieving your creative goals) is just as worthy use of your time as writing a bitchin’ tone row.

    Is there such a thing as a ”bitchin’ tone row?“ Really? 😎

    I appreciate, as I think most people do, that there is a practical aspect to getting one’s works performed. But that’s part of the problem—we do a lousy job of supporting the arts in general in this country, and new music, whether it comes from one of us or Milton Babbitt, is just not likely to be performed regardless of how practical it is to perform. I think we need a better paradigm, since what we have right now doesn’t work very well, even when the performers are well-intentioned and dedicated, like your own orchestra, Ken.

  8. Ken Woods says:

    Well…. how interesting to catch on to this thread after a few days.

    Maybe now’s the time to respond to a couple of points and try to underline some important qualifying points I made in my post.

    First, I tried to make clear- the advice is only practical and advances no artistic or aesthetic agenda. I read Kyle Gann’s blog regularly and always am interested in his point of view, so was doubly saddened to hear him summarize my attitude as “That conductor’s advice pretty much boils down to, “Be as conformist and inoffensive and unobtrusive and inconspicuous as possible, and maybe the orchestra can zip through your piece without too much objection from the board.”

    Far from it- I can imagine nothing more pointless, unrewarding or tedious than conducting conformist and inoffensive music, and it is my job to drive the board, some of whom would always be resistant no matter what you wrote. I could put my name on a Strauss Waltz and %5 of any board would tell me after the concert that they hate modern music. I don’t advocate that music be tonal or notated along common practice norms, and the tips apply equally well or not at all (in my opinion) regardless of what kind of music you write. I couldn’t agree more with Kyle’s first piece of advice “Write such fucking incredible music that for a musician to ignore you would be career suicide.”

    Note that I am careful not to say “use standard notation” or “use Italian terms,” but to use the simplest and most standard notation appropriate for your music, and to use Italian terms where possible. I do not begrudge Debussy or Mahler their French and German and neither would I or any other conductor begrudge you using English. I have simply observed over many years that, in general, you will get better, more accurate and more thoughtful performances of your pieces in a wider variety of performing environments if you, for instance, use Italian when it is adequate for getting your point across. If it is not adequate, don’t use it, but just ask yourself if ten years from now when your new piece is being recorded in Bulgaria by a Malaysian conductor, if you might have been better off using terminology that all the performers would understand. It’s your decision- if it is important to you to use English or Finnish or Russian, that’s fine- someone other than you will translate it when needed (probably into Italian!).

    I knew full well when writing those tips (at the request of a composer on O-list) that they would sound condescending to some and would simply annoy others, but all they are intended to be is one guy’s take on how to get as much of your music as possible performed as well as possible, and to hopefully make things a little easier for the composer who follows you into the same working situation. The etiquette tips have nothing to do with soothing the board or kissing up to the maestro- neither is a worthwhile goal- but with getting the most out of the time available and building a general sense of enthusiasm for new music in general and your music in particular, and, let me say it again, it has nothing to do with what kind of music you write.

    There are two other statements I want to address- First is another from Kyle Gann “But I gather I would rather never write another orchestra piece than work with the organization Woods describes.” Fair enough- there are better orchestras. However, I think that for a tiny organization to find funding for a composer-in-residence when the orchestra had previously played almost no contemporary music was a brave thing to do. Did we have to overcome a vocal and obstructionist minority to do it? Yes- which should be all the better indication that this was a group that wanted to do new music and was committed to it. Since 2003, when the original post was written, the group has premiered and commissioned several other pieces and has worked to help the composers who have collaborated with us find other performances and opportunities. As the orchestra gets better and the season expands, we’ll do more, but we can now confidently program new works knowing that doing so can bring in new listeners- for instance the visual arts community I described in the post who continue to be very supportive of new works even though their interest in “standard rep” may be minimal.

    Finally, Samuel Vriezen says “and if you come to it with a specific esthetic program and are actively promoting it, they will hate you for it. Better be professionally bland. The orchestra is an institution that now stands for nothing…”

    He was referring to my suggestion that composers not bring their dislikes to work. I do not believe that our musical culture is not like a gallery with limited space on the wall, and that one work displayed must push another into storage. When an orchestra plays your piece, we are fighting for your aesthetic program, %100. You may be a Darmstadt modernist, and we will do everything we can to show the value of that outlook, but the next week we have to do the same for your minimalist colleague.

    This does not mean we stand for nothing- it means we believe it is our job to play the music and make the strongest possible case for it, not to judge the music.(The only judging is in the decision to play it in the first place, and then whatever impact it has on musicians and audience at the end). It is not that we don’t want you to advocate your program, we just have an ethos of trying to offer the next composer (whether that is Adams, Carter or Haydn) the same courtesy- and maybe orchestra musicians will resent it if they feel you’re not willing to offer all music a fair hearing. We want our audience to feel that every piece we program, including yours, is something we are passionately committed to and is worth their time and attention. Anytime someone forgets that, whether it is a board member slagging off your piece or you slagging off Beethoven, the power of the orchestra to bring art to life is dimmed in the eyes of the public. We want your ideas, and those of your colleagues, living and dead, to be heard- that’s why we got into this business.

    Taking a cue from Kyle’s tips, might I suggest the following-

    1- Write incredible music (I thought that was a given)
    2- Remember that composition is both a creative art-form and a practical craft, and that you should excel in both areas, as you never know where one side ends and another begins. Solving a practical problem (figuring out the most idiomatic way of achieving your creative goals) is just as worthy use of your time as writing a bitchin’ tone row.
    3- Understand how performing organizations work, from practicalities of scheduling to nuances of etiquette, so you can maximize the results you get from every performance
    4- Don’t fuck it up for the next person.

  9. Rob: it’s not that you’re wrong, I think, and neither is Kenneth Woods. Within the limitats of working with conventional orchestras, it’s good advice. Certainly I do agree that time spent badmouthing is time lost rehearsing. But the point does go a little deeper. It’s perhaps easier to see my point if you contrast the way orchestras operate with how certain very specific new music ensembles operate. An ensemble such as Orkest De Volharding here in Amsterdam was originally *all* about stance and polemics, which went up from political activism down to the way phrases are to be articulated. Yes, you can play a note differently because you want to get away from style X or Y. In an ensemble like De Volharding, or, say, in any serious pop group, or in the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble, there is no note being played without stance. You just can’t play Wandelweiser music with a Carter performance attitude. You can’t play Michael Gordon with a Wandelweiser attitude. You can’t play Tom Johnson with a Ferneyhough mindset. etc, etc.

    Stance sometimes has to be articulated, and then ‘choosing sides’ can’t always be avoided. If there’s absolutely no space at all for such in orchestral rehearsal, then there may be a problem. Of course orchestral performance practice has assumptions and stance like any performance practice (basically Haydn-through-Mahler), only if you always have to avoid being polemical about it, then that means you can’t address it; which means the assumptions of classical music have become naturalized, their artificiality itself invisible: ideological.

    Which is also why no amount of new works of genius will ever change orchestral programming. It’s the dead guys first, second and third and the living guys about thirteenth, and this won’t change. Exceptions notwithstanding, but those are polemical orchestras – Kotik’s work for example.

  10. David Toub says:

    And then there’s my personal favorite: “Presto? Are you Meshuggeh?”

  11. David Toub says:

    I could say the same for Spanish. Or German. Or Binary. Or no language at all (even more efficient). I mean, if it can’t be conveyed in music, then why express it at all?

    Some people will prefer Italian. Some English (I used to write stuff like “loud as hell” in my early scores before I stopped writing serial music). Some, like de Alvear, write very little in terms of instructions. Each is valid. To claim that Italian is the lingua franca of music seems unduly partisan and eurocentric (actually, Italy-centric). I’m telling you, I’m going to have to start a movement to make Yiddish the preffered language for musical indications (and what a rich language that would be: “fast vi un shmendrick,” “nu, speed it up already!” And that classic “allegro? Shmallegro-slow it down before you get hurt. Kinehara.”

  12. Walter Ramsey says:

    If a musical idea can’t be expressed in Italian, the most simple, efficient, and beautiful language for music, it isn’t worth expressing!

    Walter Ramsey

  13. david toub says:

    Again, there are very neat and cleanly written progressive pieces of new music that don’t get performed, and there are much more gnarly scores that do get played. If the performers want to play a work, no matter how difficult it’s notated or how difficult it is to perform, it will get played. It’s that simple. I made a very conscious decision decades ago to write the music I want to write, period. Many of us have day jobs and that afford us the luxury of being able to write the new music we hear, and if it gets performed, then great. And if it doesn’t, that’s a shame, but I’d rather have written something I really want to hear, than write stuff I don’t like, but is “convenient” for performers to play over and over. In other words, better to have honest music that isn’t performed than have crap played and replayed over and over by some leading orchestra.

    I have written one piece for orchestra (make that two—some really short, crappy piece when I was a student that got read by a student orchestra). I like a lot of orchestral music. But I’m not sure I’d ever write for that medium again. I think the orchestra is getting antiquated, and besides, it is the antithesis of intimate. If I had a burning desire to write something for orchestra, I would, regardless of whether or not it would get played. But for the foreseeable future, I can’t see writing for the orchestra, or for an operatic force either. But we also do need more orchestras willing to play new music. What we have in this country is pitiful.

  14. Kyle Gann says:

    I couldn’t possibly disagree more. My music is frequently, mostly, played by “other” people. The question is, are those “other” people devoted to new music? Or are they devoted to Brahms, and is your music an onerous diversion for them? I am extremely attentive, solicitous even, in my music, to the “other” people who are going to play it. But if those “other” people who are going to play it wish they were playing Brahms, and perform for people who wish they were hearing Brahms instead, *that* is not music.

  15. Maybe the point here is that if you want your music played by other people, you might want to occassionally think about them in the process. Yes, it’s “your” music, but once it’s written, it flies out of your direct control and into the hands of others. There are many factors in a quality performance that you might not be around to prepare (either geographically or chronologically,) so oftentimes it’s better to keep the unintentional obstacles you create to a minimum. This only applies if you want other people involved.

    Then again, if the work is of such a fabulous magnitude that I get out my Tagalog to English dictionary, bravo to you.

  16. Kyle Gann says:

    Well, I’ve only had two real orchestra pieces played, but I’ve been to dozens of orchestra rehearsals of new works, and I have yet to observe a situation in which the composer was given the slightest opening to express his opinion of Schoenberg or anyone else. The conductor runs everything, the composers speaks when spoken to, and like that. One of the orchestras that performed me, the semi-pro Woodstock orchestra, was honored to be working with a live composer no matter who I was, and treated me like a star. The other, the Indianapolis Symphonic Orchestra that accompanies their choir, seemed pleasantly surprised that my music sounded as good as it did, and showed a friendly interest in me – although they only came in for the dress rehearsal. Both were lovely situations. The situation Woods describes, in which there’s some background antagonism to doing new music at all, and so any possible trouble the composer causes is already more than he’s worth, just sounds unpleasant. If the group doesn’t already possess a collective enthusiasm for exploring new music, and a willingness to enter into the world of that specific composer, then I can’t imagine wanting to work with them. Aside for a handful of American ensembles, the only worthwhile orchestras for composers seem to be in Europe. In Amsterdam I just had the great honor of working with the Orkest de Volharding, who were aggressively interested in what I was doing, true collaborators in creating the spirit of the piece. To imagine having to observe all these caveats with a group like that would be a hysterical joke.

    That said, every composer has to decide for him- or herself how far he’ll abase himself to get his work produced. Whatever else it was, the Downtown [sic] scene of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s was a group of composers who refused to bow and scrape to classical prima donnas who thought playing their music was doing them a tremendous favor – and who refused to mold their music to what were considered “professional” standards. No one else wanted to play our music, so we learned to play it ourselves, and each others’. Neatness of the score and parts was low priority, and experimentation during rehearsal more than encouraged. If the music you hear in your head has to be realized by orchestra, and you can’t make connections in Europe, I guess you play the game. But I gather I would rather never write another orchestra piece than work with the organization Woods describes.

    And incidentally, I said, “Be as arrogant as you want,” not “as arrogant as possible.” I’m as arrogant as I want to be, but I think I could be a lot more arrogant if I worked at it.

  17. Imaginary Love says:

    Samuel’s joke – over your head. There really is a click track, that’s funny! I must come to the defense of a kindred spirit.

  18. Rob Deemer says:

    Samuel, I don’t read the posting like that at all. Nowhere does he say you need to write in an inoffensive manner – it’s the antagonism towards other composers’ works or styles that he’s suggesting that you leave at home. Forums like this are great places for voicing opinions about music that one doesn’t care for, but the orchestra rehearsal (or for that matter any conversation in a professional setting with performers, board members, audience members, etc) isn’t really the appropriate context for venting against a style or another composer.

    Basically the post isn’t about content at all – it’s about interpersonal relationships and specifically how one acts in a professional manner in a rehearsal. In reacting to the post as one more example of the status quo giving a beat-down to the non-conformist only paints us as the argumentative, antagonistic caricatures that many conductors, performers, board members and audiences already assume we are.

  19. everette minchew says:

    Samuel – I was being facetious. I was thinking of the African language Xhosa which employs lots of clicking sounds.

  20. Everette: you mean a click track?

    Kyle nails it – and Rob, notice how much of the conductor’s advice is really about simply conforming and being unoffensive. It shows how a performance practice generates conformism. The clearest example is this:

    “In any “us vs. them” match up, whether it is “new vs. old,” “tonal vs. atonal,” “US vs. Europe,” academic vs. self supporting, you, the composer, lose. More importantly, it creates unbelievable resentment among everyone whose support you need. You may hate Beethoven or Schoenberg in the privacy of your own home, but no matter what you hate, someone in the orchestra or the audience loves it, and if you convince them that you don’t listen to music with open ears, they won’t feel they owe you the same courtesy.”

    – which roughly translates as: the orchestra didn’t get together to stand for some specific esthetic program, and if you come to it with a specific esthetic program and are actively promoting it, they will hate you for it. Better be professionally bland. The orchestra is an institution that now stands for nothing. Which is probably why I have so far not had the urge to write for one.

    However, I do find some other tips quite good, such as “When it comes time to attend a rehearsal for your work, arrive no less than one hour early.” – “Learn to talk about your music, and about where your music fits in cultural history.” (so many composers can’t do this!) – “Know something about the other arts”

  21. everette minchew says:

    from now on I am only using performance directions in various African click languages

  22. David Toub says:

    There have been occasional times when the use of Klingon and its various dialects has proven most instructive to performers of my music.

  23. Daniel G. says:

    “I think the secret really is to write music that is worth writing.” What?! You blew it David. Our secret is out! You are henceforth ousted from the Composer’s Secret Society. 😀

    But seriously, the reality is, like Rob said, we use a combination of languages. For me, English is primary, with performance indications in Italian and French.

  24. Dean Rosenthal says:

    I can’t help but agree with David when he writes that the secret is to write music worth writing. Performers respond to quality, as he points out, most likely, indirectly. Kyle intensely expresses an important value: write with the best, ***k the rest – politely. There’s a real hypocrisy to Ken’s insistence that I write for “you”.

  25. David Toub says:

    OK, have I entered the twilight zone or what? Evan and I are in total agreement, along with Kyle. What’s next, Mike Huckabee joining me in the pro-choice movement? 😎

    Rob, I understand where you’re coming from, and we do indeed need to recognize that this attitude is out there. I don’t think one should place unnecessary obstacles out there for performers. But I also don’t think one should write same old, conventional scores just to hopefully improve one’s chances of having more performers willing to play through the notes. There’s a difference between just playing the notes and actually performing the music. One is mechanical, the other artistic/interpretive.

    I think the secret really is to write music that is worth writing. Carter’s scores are a bitch, yet they have been performed. Same with Shapey—Ralph’s stuff is even worse, since it’s largely handwritten and has more nested tuplets than perhaps anything else. Feldman went nuts with unconventional enharmonic spellings in many of his later string works (think Fb rather than E and all sorts of double sharps and flats and you’ll get the idea). Yet people who love his music do indeed play it. Same with Carter and Shapey. And besides, many postminimalist pieces have very little in terms of markings in Italian or otherwise, yet are way underperformed. Their notation often isn’t complex, but the works get blown off anyway. So while I’m sure making the score as unobtrusive as possible is something welcomed by many performers, it doesn’t mean that new music necessarily gets played. Nor does it mean that complex stuff like Ferneyhough isn’t going to be played.

    Face it, as new music composers, our music suffers from a stigma regardless of how it’s notated. It amazes me that people are willing and able to perform The Musical Offering, which has very little in terms of direction, yet get bent out of shape when asked to perform a score that has English terms or worse, no terms at all.

  26. Personally, I meant to to write “I don’t think I write music that musicians can’t ignore…” Hoisted, once again, by my own petard. Touché, Kyle.

  27. Rob Deemer says:

    The “implied conformism” remark made by Kyle is a little off the mark in this case. If Ken was a professor of composition, then I’d be in complete agreement – I mentioned in the comments of the original posting that I suggest only using Italian (and other non-English languages) when the performance tradition of a specific instrument calls for it (sul tasto, près de la table, etc.). But I don’t agree that we should view Ken’s informative posting as such…in fact it’s an example of the “warning about what reactions one would get” that Kyle mentioned in his next sentence. Regardless of whether or not we agree with the viewpoint as composers, it’s important that we know that it exists out there so we can choose to write with or against it intentionally.

  28. Well….only English for me, but the Italian strikes me as useful every now and then. I seem to piss off a lot of people in general, so I’m not sure being as arrogant as possible is quite helpful. Morton Feldman is a special case for me. I can’t imagine his arrogance, but then we never met, as outrageous as that may sound.On the other hand, I don’t think I write, in general, music that musicians can ignore. Somehow I got stuck in some sort of math-set composing that I love and devote myself and my life to writing.. Like Samuel, perhaps, there’s nothing I like better than Tom Johnson’s ideas right now. How quaint and 20th century of me. I have no plans whatsoever to write anything else, for the good of music. I see no reason to write anything akin to the culture. I love my freedom.

  29. Evan Johnson says:

    My advice to a young composer would be completely different:

    1. Write such fucking incredible music that for a musician to ignore you would be career suicide.

    2a. Be as arrogant as you want…

    2b. …but still polite.

    It worked for Morton Feldman.

    Hear, hear, Kyle, one of the few things you’ve ever written with which I agree 100%.

  30. Kyle Gann says:

    It’s the implied conformism that bothers me. If a student of mine had some bizarre theory that impelled him to put his musical indications in Swahili, I’d warn him about what reactions he’d get, but commend him for at least being different. That conductor’s advice pretty much boils down to, “Be as conformist and inoffensive and unobtrusive and inconspicuous as possible, and maybe the orchestra can zip through your piece without too much objection from the board.” My advice to a young composer would be completely different:

    1. Write such fucking incredible music that for a musician to ignore you would be career suicide.

    2a. Be as arrogant as you want…

    2b. …but still polite.

    It worked for Morton Feldman.

  31. Perhaps the general rule is: if an Italian musical term has a common abbrev, it’s sufficiently standard. That would define the difference between “andante ma non troppo” and “rit.”.

  32. “sussurando”! pretty nice word, actually!

  33. Scriabin (a Russian) wrote his performance indications in French (not in Italian). I guess French was the culturally correct language at that time in Russia. I suppose it’s Italian in the US now. In Holland, indeed, it’s English.

    I don’t like using indications like “allegro”. It just doesn’t seem to say what I want to say. I tend to prefer writing things like “fast” or “very fast”, and then explain just how many notes a second that is in the performance notes. I do use “rit.” and “acc.” and “f” and “p”. I also have written for Guiro, Glockenspiel, wouldn’t be against writing for gamelan, duduk, saz or sho and remember writing ‘pres de la table’ for harp. Two short pieces written for Germans had instructions in German. Some other pieces, which I hadn’t expected to travel much, have instructions in Dutch – Motet has “fluisterend” for “whispering”, the Dutch word is even more beautiful than the English one (would have to look up the Italian word)

    Of course, I don’t write for the standardized orchestral practice that some of these suggestions are meant for. I best like the suggestions that carry across specific musical cultures, the ones that are about being prepared, being there in time, being nice, etc.

  34. Rodney Lister says:

    Incidentally, Carter got scorrevole from Piston. I actually prefer scurrying.

    As to Grainger–I love fiddles, middle fiddles, slowing up, heavily flowing,
    and clingingly. Or for that matter, with Ernst Bacon, with a velvety shuffle.

  35. Kyle Gann says:

    Well, I probably picked Cleveland because I used to hear them when I was at Oberlin. I heard them do the American premiere of Boulez’s Rituel, a piece that had a big impact on me in the ’70s and is still a favorite, and an unforgettable performance of the Mahler Ninth. Probably before your time.

    I guess it’s obvious I’m in the lull just before teaching and don’t have much to do today.

  36. This reminds me of Percy Grainger saying that he preferred to use “blue-eyed English” in his scores.

    Hey Kyle, thanks for (completely non-intentional) plugging of the Cleveland Philharmonic, the community orchestra that I played in all through college. I got to play some great stuff there, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, Mathis der Maler, and Horn Concerto, Nielsen Symphonies 4 & 5, Kodaly’s “Hary Janos Suite”, Mahler 6, and enough Tchaikovsky to gag Boulez.

    Another composer who likes to go overboard with the obscure Italian is Persichetti. I don’t mind any language (as long as I know the alphabet.) French, German, Italian are fine. Russian is a lot more problematic because of the Cyrillic, although there’s a great horn player in town who is a Russian immigrant, although her English isn’t great. The other problem is I can never remember what the circle and plus mean in different Russian percussion parts. I remember hiring a friend majoring in French to help me decode my part to Boulez’s “Eclat.” It took a while for this non-pianist to figure out the recurring markings ‘m.d.’ and ‘m.g’ meant main droit and main gauche. Boulez wrote his instructions in French, I wonder why? 🙂

  37. Evan Johnson says:

    Actually, when I Googled it the second site was for a dictionary of musical terms!

    Anyway, the point is very well made here anyway: now, “scorrevole” means something beside “floating” or whatever the best literal translation is. It means something specific in Carter’s oeuvre, and it is, in some sense, a reference to Carter in others’. Similarly, “allegro” does not MEAN fast — “adagio” does not MEAN slow — “mesto” does not MEAN sad. “Mesto” means some combination of “sad” and “a la Bartokian night music.”

    Aside from the fact that, to me, English in scores just looks jarring, I exclusively use Italian not for practical purposes (some of the vocabulary I tend to employ is far too obscure for it to be at all practical, I’m afraid) but because (a) it implicitly sparks a dialogue with the player’s history, and (b) (and this is irrelevant to the discussion) those adjectives tend, in my longer pieces, to become relatively free-floating signifiers that take on a life of their own.

    It’s not as simple as one language or another to express exactly the same concept or directive; that’s all I’m saying.

    In fact, that’s all I’ve said the last five times this topic has come up here as well!

  38. Kyle Gann says:

    Elliott Carter loves to use the marking “scorrevole” – which is so associated with him, and so far outside traditional classical-music usage, that if you Google it you’ll find nothing but Italian-language sites and Elliott Carter sites. For the first ten years I was familiar with his music, I assumed it meant something like “scurrilous.”

  39. Well that’s where I wouldn’t have said a thing like that in Italian. Those are not generally used classical musical terms. If it has to be looked up in a dictionary – è errato! It’s about ease of use, no use of a dictionary, no discussion.

    In many ways it’s similar (and I don’t think mixing languages is a good idea either) to what you (sic) downtowners espouse. Clarity and musician choice. By using only standard musical Italian terms that everybody has seen a gazillion times – you save time. Something like these perhaps although I’ve only used about a third of those in my work:

    For me, again, it’s about getting the best performance I can get out of a performer and again, it’s not about looking ‘blank’ or ‘euro’ or ‘old world’ or cool. That, IMO, in a score is pointless. That’s just how I roll… and musicians seem to love it.

    As a complete nobody, an unaffiliated online hopeless loser, I don’t get performed because I’m known for this or that or affiliated with them or these – I only get performed because they’ve heard my music. And I have to make an effort to insure that the performance goes well.

    My swipe was a comment about how some of us, I believe, are spoiled. That’s great for you guys, but it doesn’t work for me.

    The community of musicians I work with is much more out of the mainstream new music ghetto. And because of that I have to cater to their needs. My music just wouldn’t work with the notations or lack thereof you guys describe. And again, no insult intended – your mileage may vary!

    And Rodney, the gratuitous swipe was funnier in its entirety. 😉

  40. David Toub says:

    I agree, Rodney and Kyle. I’m for anything that will make performers’ lives easier. Writing arcane and easily-misunderstood words in a foreign language isn’t going to make a material difference in terms of making a score more convenient for them. And providing some instructions can indeed be helpful, to be sure. But in the end, all the markings in the world, even in Italian, won’t make a “perfect” performance (whatever that means).

    I also don’t know what “notationally cool” means exactly. In C looks pretty cool to me, and it’s less complex on the face of it than, say, Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra or Carter’s Double Concerto or many things by Scelsi and Feldman. Does notational complexity = cool? I’ve seen crap that is notated with extreme complexity and great music that looks “simplistic.” When I’m listening to a piece of music, I can’t hear the notation, only the notes. Yet at the same time, I also consider how the notes appear to be not much different from art. It just has to be more than art, since it also serves a functional purpose. So I think the music should sometimes push the notational boundaries without becoming an obstacle to the performers, if that makes any sense.

  41. Kyle Gann says:

    David, I don’t really know the answer to your question, except that I’ve found that performers do seem to feel strangely comforted by these words that push them in the right emotional direction. I don’t at all mind doing things to make performers feel better. So I wrote “Serene, floating” on the front of a score yesterday, even though I thought that should go without saying given the musical content. But the idea that I would go look up the Italian equivalents for “serene” and “floating” and write those in, in order to have them misinterpreted as “Italian for moderato” by one of Jeff’s idiots, is just ludicrous.

  42. Rodney Lister says:

    I don’t think it necessary to do one or the other exclusively. If you want to write Allegro or espressivo, pretty much everybody will know what you mean, and in these parts if you write Slow or Fast it won’t be a problem. Of course in Germany players are a lot more likely to know what just about any English term is than American players are to really know what “Ausdruckvol” or “steigernd ” or God knows what other term might come up. As things that can waste rehearsal time go, which was the point of this discussion, writing “Fast” or even (to quote Copland) “a trifle slower” seems to me to be fairly low on the list, and I’m speaking as somebody who spends most of his time working with pre-college kids–not “avant-garde down-town super performers.”
    (gratuitous swipe, that, as far as I’m concerned.

  43. David Toub says:

    Why do we feel so compelled to provide performers with meticulous instructions, in Italian or any other language, as if they are necessary to “decode” the piece? I think most performers should be trusted to go with the music and with their own musical instincts. I’ve had some things played that had hardly any markings at all (literally a dynamic or two and a metronome marking, and that’s it) and without any instruction from me, the performers “got it” and the results were amazing.

    I hear some people every now and then decry MIDI-generated audio files for their rigidity and lack of humanity. Yet many of the same folks want to see all these textual notations in the scores, preferably written in Italian. Seems like a contradiction to me. How about giving more latitude to the performers by not specifying “un poco piu mosso, non troppo allegro” or something like that? Even with all these markings, I’ve heard performances of classical music that were markedly different (yet valid) interpretations. And isn’t that the point of “interpreting” and “performing?”

    If I wanted a very controlled performance, I’d stick with my MIDI samples, thank you very much. Live performers need to be trusted to use their central nervous systems, since they can bring something of themselves to the music they perform. I’d like to suggest we trust the musicians; they’re professionals, and don’t need us to try to control them in terms of how they interpret our music. Just my $0.02.

  44. Kyle Gann says:

    Great story, Rodney, and to the point. Dutch composers often write their instructions and texts in English because they speak English, and very few people in the world speak Dutch. I can see not wanting to limit the international scope of one’s music. If an Italian group commissioned me, I’d throw in as much Italian as I could. But if a student came to me and insisted on using “espressivo” rather than “expressively,” I would ask him whether he was writing music he personally cared about, or whether he was imitating, and trying to borrow prestige from, a kind of music whose importance he envied. If he said, “My dad is concertmaster of the Cleveland Philharmonic, and I grew up playing viola in Mozart string quartets,” maybe I’d give him a pass. But for my average student it would be like the kid who once came to me wanting to write an atonal string quartet – and when I asked him to name an atonal string quartet he liked, it turned out he’d never heard one, but he thought that’s what composers were supposed to write.

    If I’m lucky in my performers, maybe it’s because none of the idiots consider me a legitimate composer. I’ve forgotten how to insert one of those smiley things.

  45. Hahaha… I knew that would get a response like that. Kyle, we’re not all so privileged to get great avant garde downtown super-performers with tons of attitude that are committed to playing every note just perfectly as if through telepathic communication. You are singularly blessed it seems.

    Some of us have to actually work with working classical musicians and reducing rehearsal time is of the essence. 😉

    There is a long and living musical history of what these Italian terms means. There is little or no history, with what Amerenglish musical terms mean, musically. Musical interpretations and language need this history and this comfort level in my experience.

    My concern has never been being notationally cool. Not being ‘American’ in my notations. Not being anything but a composer that is trying to get his music played as well as possible. I want it to be patently obvious what I want. I could really give a shit about looking avant garde or modern or any other conceit the 20th century came up with to seem whatever. Write your music as if idiots are going to perform it – because someday one will. 😉

    Your mileage may vary…

  46. David Toub says:

    I dont write anything other than a metronome marking and an occasional (very occasional) dynamic. But if I did, I’m with Kyle. Years ago when I was a student, sure, I wrote some Italian markings. And even now, there’s nothing wrong with indicating “rubato” or “tenuto,” both of which are Italian. But after awhile, isn’t it a tad pretentious and presumptuous to write in these lofty classic Italian terms? How about just writing what you mean in whatever language you prefer? Ruggles, Ives, Partch and many others did just that, and while I agree that many orchestral musicians would never be enamored with their music (Partch isn’t an issue, of course, since he didn’t write for standard orchestras AFAIK), there are also those orchestral performers who really do enjoy new music.

    Personally, when I see a work written in the past 20 years or so in the US that uses very old terminology, I do a double take. Maybe it’s just me.

    On another issue, while the article is indeed of interest and I agree that many orchestral musicians stop being receptive once someone mentions the possibility of playing a modern piece, I would also say that the orchestras that do program new music (and I’m talking “new music,” not stuff written in the early or mid-20th century that is only “new” because folks are too timid to listen to it) tend to have better attendance and do much better overall. Eventually the Friday afternoon crowd will be no more and a higher proportion of audiences will actually be very willing to attend new music concerts. In fact, they might even seek them out. Attitudes like “oh, this is modern so let’s obfuscate and try to not have to play it”’ just won’t make it anymore.

  47. Steve Layton says:

    Except Bartok might have written “sajnálatos”…

  48. Rodney Lister says:

    But players here anyway, haven’t been breathing the directions in , say, Mahler Symphonies–where the terms are really pretty complicated thoughts—since they were kids. And in any case, using fast instead of allegro shouldn’t be a problem with an orchestra anywhere. There’s probably some case where it makes a big difference, but otherwise it’s just fussy, and unlike everything else he said, not something that you’d think would be that big a factor one way or another.

    I’m reminded of a story anyway, which I guess is actually supposed to be a real one, about a member of a rather famous string quartet in a masterclass at a major music school who apparently, when dealing with the Bartok 6th quartet, said, “Mesto– that’s italian for moderato.” There a layers of grotesqueness about that story. Apparently somebody did point out to him that moderato was Italian. In a case like that, maybe Bartok would have been better off if he’d written “sad.”

  49. Steve Layton says:

    Spoken like a true composer, Kyle. Any American ensemble or orchestra can’t possibly gripe about “Slow and subdued”, “hold back”, “near the bridge”, etc… But all performers here and abroad have been living and breathing the standard Italian, German and French terms since they were kids, it’s just in their blood. I suppose sometimes certain things might just go better using the lingua franca.

  50. Kyle Gann says:

    Use Italian terms, he says. Whenever a student brings me a score marked with Italian terms, I ask, “Oh, do you have a performance in Italy lined up?” I find it pretentious. There were historical reasons to use Italian terms when most musicians in this country were Italian, but those reasons have long since disappeared. Beethoven was proud enough of being German to start using “hammerklavier” instead of “pianoforte,” but I think a lot of classical musicians want to feel like they’re still living in the glorious 19th century.

  51. Ken says:

    Thanks for the shout out! Thanks for pointing out that I only said as simply as possible, not simply…..

    All very best