Sometime in the early 90s I became addicted to fast tempos. Fast tempos allowed me to revel in rhythmic detail without resorting to fussy notation. They also generated an energy level that seemed in keeping with the speed of life around me.
As soon as I noticed my growing addiction, I began finding ways to subvert it, looking for a balance of expression that reflected the balance of forces around me and within me. By the end of the century, I felt comfortable writing with an enormous range of metronome markings, each of which had a multiplicity of meanings in my expressive lexicon.
When I had Bernard Rands here as a guest about ten years ago, I was surprised to find that all of his tempos are multiples of 12, as in 48, 60, 72, 84, 96, etc. It seemed both randomly limited and oddly liberating. More precise indications, eg quarter = 71.3, are fine in the studio, but music written for live performance asks for a bit of flexibility to take into account variance in acoustics, instruments, personal temperaments. Rands’s approach allowed him that flexibility, while giving him clearly distinguishable increments to choose from.
More recently, I’ve begun to notice something new coming from my students. The fast tempos I was enamored with twenty years ago are their moderatos. Twentyish composers think nothing of metronome markings of 200+. It makes sense, given the music and technology they grew up with, so I find myself torn between urging them to broaden their vocabularies and encouraging them to leap ever farther off the deep end.
Usually, I push them both ways. Funny how often that works.