Recently I had one of those experiences that have become cliche for the contemporary composer. I wrote a piece that was really, really hard; there wasn’t enough rehearsal time; and the performance (despite heroic efforts) was pretty rough.

I’m still stubbornly proud of my work. But, sometime during the whole process, it dawned on me: whereas some of the difficult music I’ve composed I honestly do wish had been easier, I have never wished any of the easy pieces I’ve written had been harder.

Have you?

39 Responses to “Easy to Play”
  1. david toub says:

    Easy is very relative. Some stuff of mine that looks trivial on paper, such as objects is actually really, really hard to play (just ask Hugh Sung, Bill Solomon or Daniel Beliavsky, all of whom are virtuosi on their respective instruments). On the other hand, some music that looks difficult really isn’t all that bad. And there is some music I’ve written that looks difficult and really is difficult.

    Without sounding talmudic, I’ve never looked at a “simple” score of mine and wished it were more “difficult,” and also never looked at a “difficult” score and wished it were “simpler.” I do, at times, wish that people were more willing to try new music, difficult or otherwise. And many scores by composers like Scelsi, Carter, Shapey and others are exquisitely difficult to perform, yet people will always rise to the occasion if the music is compelling as music. Granted, stuff by Scelsi, Shapey, Feldman and others might not be performed as often as they should be. But they will get performed. Performers can do some pretty incredible things that one might think impossible. In Paganini’s day, all of his violin music was considered so difficult, he must be in league with the devil. Yet today, it is de rigeur for any serious violinist. Even the Ligeti Etudes are becoming expected from many piano competition soloists.

    So the important thing, I think, is to write pretty much what you damn well please. If it works as music, whether technically easy or difficult, someone will eventually be able to perform it. And David, let’s not also forget that pieces that look “simple” on paper are often inappropriately derided as “simple” by those who believe music has to have a bajillion little annotations, slurs, dynamics and other instructions to the performer. So “simple” is a two-way sword.

  2. Robert Jordahl says:

    I’ve never thought there was anything to be gained
    by writing ” difficult ” music, and everything I’ve composed
    I have heard performed.

  3. Most of my concerns about ease or difficulty of performance have to do with writing idiomatically for the instrument rather than whether the music itself is easy or hard. So there have been plenty of times where I wished I had written something more idiomatic, and thus easier to play, but a rewrite to fix the idomatic problems would still be musically essentially the same. I guess I feel like most of my music is, aside from errors in judgement on what’s idiomatic or orchestrationally wise, exactly as hard or easy as it has to be to work. At the same time, I could imagine wishing I had written a _different_ piece that would have been better suited to the circumstances of the performance or ability level of the players.

  4. One of my former percussion teachers who is also a respected arranger/orchestrator and sometime composer had the motto of “never write anything harder than you can play.” Now this will surely stir up all the New Complexity fans here, but there are a couple of observations. 1.) you know what you are writing (I’m so tired of the “it sounds good on my sampler” pieces) and 2.) you will get better as a performer as you write. The “three Bs” were certainly capable as performers along with Bartok, Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski, Copland, Messaien, the aforementioned Paganini, etc. Hindemith’s performing abilities are well known (and I think his recording of Der Schwanendreher more interesting than most.) Reich and Glass can certainly play their own music.

    Another point here is to develop good contemporary literature for younger and less skilled players. As a slacking secondary piano student in my undergrad, I could be inundated with sonatinas by Kuhlau, Clementi, Mozart, and other pieces in common practice language. Of course, I was more drawn to Bartok’s Mikrocosmos and I really dug deep to find Persichetti’s sonatinas and fabulous Little Piano Book and a Schott collection of easier pieces by Hindemith. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to turn to collections of easier works by Corigliano or Ades or Babbitt or Macmillian for students to develop technique and a sense of other harmonic languages? We don’t throw second year German language students into trying to read Adorno.

    The marimbist Nancy Zeltsman is in the process of commissioning a number of pieces for intermediate level players. Most of what passes for marimba music are sticking etudes on quintal/quartal passagework written by other marimbists. (Kind of like Czerny studies passing itself off as concert music.)

  5. David Salvage says:

    Mel — what a good idea. Someone should commission some “easy” pieces from all these “hard” composers. The results would be interesting, I’m sure.

    Behind my post was some (dubious) advice I received years ago from a composition teacher. He said not to be afraid of writing difficult music. Pieces that are easy won’t get the rehearsal time hard pieces will. Players thus have more opportunity to get used to the complex pieces better. Experience, however, hasn’t borne this out.

  6. Dubious advice indeed. That theory might work for college groups or faculty ensembles, but rehearsal time is expensive. It’s like the comment that John Corigliano made about how he is going to quit writing for symphony orchestras which can give you 3 hours of rehearsal time for a piece and write more for college band which will rehearse all semester (and doesn’t have to follow union work rules.)

    The Cleveland based Fortnightly Musical Club once sponsored a competition for it’s composer guild for easy piano. I remember coming across a collection of five finger pieces by my theory/composition professor Bain Murray in a used sheet music sale. He was shocked as hell that somebody found a copy of those pieces (which were along the lines of Kabalevsky’s “Ivan” pieces. I also found a copy of William Schuman’s “Three Score Set” there.) I’d rather give my (hypothetical) children Bain Murray versus John Thompson any day.

  7. Everette Minchew says:

    I have one piece in particular, that I have always thought that it was an easy work, but after a few performances I had to come to the realization that it was not as easy as I thought.

  8. Chris Sahar says:

    Some of the most difficult music to play WELL has been written many times and what has been deemed impossible becomes possible IF the composer and performer find a way. For example, some of the most difficult keyboard works to play a few of the great organ Prelude and Fugues of Bach — the “Wedge” in E minor or his collections such as his Organ Mass. Yet it is very idiomatic for the instrument although during his time he expanded immensely organ technique (so much so it took until Mendelssohn to even approach partly Bach’s level and until Franck to match and the 20th century with Vierne and Messaien to build further upon it). I really think you have to work with performers — as best as you can and if you yourself can toss of a Carter or Bartok piano concerto, then be able to show another performer HOW to do it.

    I also agree that you should be able to play your own works competently … No, you don’t have to play it flawlessly and with supernatural sensitivity and musical understanding but enough to communicate its overall structure and, for lack of a better word “Feel”. Then the performer may suprise the hell out of you and turn into something wonderfully new again or wreck it. But it is a risk. Can you imagine how manygodawful performers Carter must have heard or to go much further back, Chopin (which, there are a few rare pieces which are rarely heard played “perfectly”, eg the Presto section of the 1st Ballad and for those who may not have a very large hand span, the Op 10 #1 Etude can seem a physical impossibility at tempo)

    here’s an idea of a thread, can you name one piano piece written by a dead famous classical piano known for other wise great piano writing that you feel is terribly unidiomatic and actually quite problematic to perform convincingly — I’ll say the Fugue from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin.

  9. If a piece is difficult, its difficulty should somehow be part of the musical experience, as in virtuoso music. Or even as in certain pieces by Tom Johnson, which look pretty simple but are fiendishly difficult – but you *know* that audiences will be able to appreciate that somehow. And there are many other types of difficulty.

    The main type to be avoided (apart from music that is merely awkward to play, of course) is the difficulty that’s merely there because it seems like it would be more interesting that way. Pointless notey gestural stuff.

  10. Tom Myron says:

    I’m curious; what made the piece hard?

  11. Interesting thread. If what you hear is difficult, I think you have to write it. If it is easy, same thing.

    I know that Zappa used early technology to write compositions that were utterly complex and difficult, possibly way beyond his own chops. But he hired people who could play it.

    Brahms seems concerned that keyboard players of limited ability still be able to play his waltzes. (I know. Different context. Back when amateur musicians were important to music’s dissemination.)

    Parameters set by the composers can be liberating and interesting. Bartok’s idea of piano pieces from simple to more difficult in Mikrocosmos. Stravinsky’s Music for Five Fingers on the Piano.

    I think it boils down to a search for integrity inside the music as you make it up and craft it. Sometimes the ease of execution is relevant to what you are trying to do. Sometimes the stretch for the instrument and player is integral. Sometimes it doesn’t enter in to the thought process.

    I once had a teacher tell me one of my compositions fell “too easy under the fingers.” Another time I had an instrumentalist tell me a different composition wasn’t worth the work it would take to learn it.

  12. Somehow, my post got shredded by the ever-vigilant Spam Decimator 3000, so I’ll try again.

    One thing we have to remember, as composers, is that performers play our music, and they really want to do a good job. They want to present your music, and their abilities, in the best possible light. We’ve come under the Modernist delusion that music must be hard!

    Back in the 90s, I was writing very difficult music. (Wow, this sounds like a testimonial…) Then, I had a conversation with flutist Tara O’Connor, who plays a great deal of contemporary music. We were talking about some really complex music, the kind of music that would take superhuman abilities and endless hours for practice. I think we were discussing Ferneyhough’s music, when Tara said “You know, sometimes I wish I’d be handed a piece that I could just sit down and play.”

    This wasn’t laziness on her part, or Tara lamenting on her sight-reading abilities. The fact was, she would spend hours working out complex rhythms in a few measures. In the end, though, the result may have been less musical than she had hoped it would be, since she had spent all her time on technical matters.

    That conversation really stayed with me. Soon after that time, I began changing the way I wrote, stripping away the complexities. I found ways to notate music that might allude to a polyrhythm without having the player to spend hours on a passage. I’m much happier these days. I remember seeing performers while they were working on my difficult pieces – usually, they come into a rehearsal apologizing. If they’d only had a few more hours… I’m glad I don’t hear that any more!

    I should mention that Tara still plays a great deal of contemporary music.

  13. Kyle Gann says:

    I remember a concert I heard at Merkin Hall once at which the performers worked so hard that I wrote that they should have been cordoned off with a tape reading “Men at work.” I think the 20th century way overdid virtuosity, with the result that the audiences for contemporary music are usually applauding the evident hard work the players put in, rather than the music. I don’t like the sound of virtuosity anymore, and try to avoid it. At the same time, I end up putting ensemble rhythms in my music that are very easy for me, but difficult for the performers. Generally, after they figure out my rhythmic style, it becomes easy for them too. The one thing I won’t compromise on is that every gesture I write has to be “feelable,” not just countable.

  14. On the other hand, Kyle, you composer for alternative tuning systems. Couldn’t one consider tunings to be a “sound of virtuosity”? It’s not counting, but in an era when 12TET still rules the design of instruments, isn’t it hard work? The kind of thing that gets applause at, say, the AFMM? Are these tunings “feelable” or complex to engage in?


  15. Kyle Gann says:

    Hi, Dennis. With one exception, I write microtonal music only for electronic instruments. I press a key on the MIDI controller, and 435 cents comes out. What’s difficult? The exception was my piece The Day Revisited, which Pat Spencer and Meighan Stoops asked me to write, and it was so agonizingly difficult (29 pitches per octave) that I’ll never do anything like that again. The piece is on my new CD, and I can’t tell you what editing it was like, searching 33 takes for the one that might have the note I need. But yes, the pitches *are* all feelable, if you can get them to come out.

  16. Kyle, understood. I had somehow thought the electronic instruments were kind of a ‘placeholder’ for acoustic instruments. As for The Day Revisited, well, then, it will definitely be on the listen list.

    Happy New Year,

  17. Kyle Gann says:

    They *are* placeholders, for instruments that will not be invented until after I’m dead and buried. But unlike Varèse (who quit composing because the instruments he wanted to write for didn’t exist yet), I’m going ahead and writing the music now.

  18. Cary Boyce says:

    In response to the original post, I had a premiere recently, of a choral piece that might be considered “moderately difficult.” (Lot’s of divisi, three choirs within a choir, polytonal, antiphonal, solos, etc.) The dress rehearsal sounded fine, but the choir had struggles during the performance. Part of the failure was mine for writing somewhat beyond the comfort zone of an ensemble. But I knew they had performed relativley difficult music as a matter of course. Even so, I wish I had made it easier. At the same time, the conductor (who’s really terrific) said there were other contributing factors. She likes the piece, and hopes for another shot at it.

    It’s a difficult situation. But I see at least part of my job for a commission as making the performer(s) sound good, while showcasing their strengths. I missed a bit on this one.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s a good piece, and I won’t modify it. It’s a challenge that has been faced by composers through the ages.

  19. I keep thinking about this topic and reading subsequent comments. Kyle Gann’s comment about “easy for me, but hard for performers” gives me further food for thought.

    Maybe I’m idealistic, but I think composers are most effective when they write from inside the music…..

    In 1938, Bartok wrote about the difficulty of his rhythms for a good radio orchestra in Frankfurt. He gave them a 5/8 Bulgarian melody to play but even after much rehearsal it was still beyond them. He later realized that he hadn’t quite notated the melody properly and that it should have been notated in 9/16. He wonders in his essay what these poor musicians would have made of the more accurate notation. (The entire essay, “The So-Called Bulgarian Rhythm,” is in Bela Bartok Essays, selected and edited by Benjamin Suchoff, U of Nebraska Press, 1976).

    More pertinently to my way of thinking was his later comment in the essay: “My feeling is that this extension of the note value is no other than the translation of a dynamic stress into terms of duration.” In other words rhythmic complexity or simplicity is derived from an intrinsic aspect of the music itself.

    Further on, he remarks, “I said earlier that these rhythms are natural ones. By that I mean they have not been laboriously thought up by composers, but have come into being in village music-making, by the most natural development. And we have seen that even these rhythmic types caused great difficulties to trained musicians (though not to the peasant).”

    So, for me, what Bartok is admittedly romantically idealizing as “natural development” is a critical notion to me in my own work and much of my appreciation for others’ work. As Gann says, easy for me [the composer] but [initially] hard for performers and ultimately paying off in meaning for composer, performer and listener.

  20. I’ve had the interesting experience of pieces of mine being harder to perform when programmed with music by other composers. The New York Treble Singers have performed pieces of mine many times. When it’s a full program of my music, they perform the pieces very well. But, when on a mixed composer program, they invariably screw it up in places. It’s as if they have to switch gears to perform my pieces and can’t always handle the transition. Anyone else had a similar experience?

  21. Kyle Gann says:

    Mary Jane, the honor of having an ensemble devote an entire concert to one’s own music is one that I suspect not many of us have enjoyed often enough to generalize about.

  22. Well, if you’re foolish enough to write a lot of pieces for the same instrumentation, it can happen. ;-)

  23. Cary Boyce says:

    Sorry, one more comment, and I’ll let it go… My own new music ensemble does “difficult” music as a matter of course. Some is more difficult than others, but ain’t none of it easy. It’s the niche we fill, I suppose… As does eighth blackbird, and many others. Difficult is relative, but the comment that composers and performers can find a way is pretty much on the mark, if there is an artistic vision.

    Audience reception is another matter, and we look for music that has a special voice, despite the difficulty level and aside from any virtuosity that might be required. Then we do our damned best to make it sound as good as it can.

    This by way of saying that the vision is the thing, but the practicality of matching a capable ensemble with the music can be challenging.

  24. Russ Grazier says:

    I was commissioned last year to write a choral work for a local women’s chorus – a group that is taught by rote. No music reading whatsoever. I worked hard to compose a piece that I believed they could rehearse and perform well using their method of rehearsal – without compromising my artistic vision. I love the piece, think it is wonderfully singable, and was astonished to find that they had incredible difficulty learning to sing it. I had spent weeks walking around the house singing the melodies to myself. Hearing how the parts interact. I ended up with a premiere of a fragment of the piece – something I begrudgingly agreed to – and a promise of a full performance in a future season. I’ve yet to hear the full piece in performance, though I’m currently approaching other groups about it. Difficulty really is in the eyes and ears of the performer.

    That said, I couldn’t change a note and still believe that the piece is easier than the conductor thinks.

  25. Brian Vlasak says:

    I would argue that a work like “Rothko Chapel” would be difficult simply because of its transparency, even though the lines, etc … are not terribly difficult.

    I’ve found this problem in my own work: I take pains to make sure the individual parts are relatively simply, but they are just so very difficult to actually make coordinate with one another that, inevitibly, one slightly mis-timed note or event somewhere sets off a chain reaction that eventally builds into a cascade of miscues. What is one to do?

    Perhaps there are multiple types of difficulties. We live in an era where the technical mastery of instrumentalists is unparalleled, yet where often times the musicality is sacrificed and, as a result, the performances themselves are “uninspired” (whatever THAT means) or, quite simply, inaccruate, because no one is thinking as an interpretor or as a communicator of an idea. Perhaps one of the failings of the canon of classical music is that, all too often, the instruments were seen as interchangable parts — if you will — and independence was never truly stressed as something to embrace. Now, regardless of how technically difficult a line is, it certainly sounds difficult because we are forcing the interpretors to think.

  26. Jeffrey Quick says:

    Mell,. that Guild folio is still in print; at least the Guild got a royalty check for it last year.

    I’ve never written anything too easy, that I wanted to be harder. I’ve never written anything too hard to play either, but I have written things that were harder than they needed to be. Part of craft is to state what you have to say in the simplest possible terms. There have been times when I’ve gone back to a piece and realize that a certain complexity didn’t buy me enough in effect to justify itself. This has happened most frequently in choral music, and I’ve realized that if I can’t nail a line first time, every time (and I fancy myself a good reader) others can’t either. The closest I’ve come to “unplayable” instrumentally was the first movement of my Divertimento in C. The problem there was mostly notational…I had an imitative section in mixed meters with a lot of 7/8 measures, and I found that I could rebar with no negative effect to the outcome. I.e., none of the events were changed temporally, just their relation to the pulse. My music tends to be hard because a lot of it is fast, contrapuntal, and tonal, with quick harmonic changes, and if things don’t line up, it ain’t pretty. But it makes no sense to ditch major stylist traits just to make things easier.

  27. Kraig Grady says:

    I have always avoided writing too difficult of music, at least on the level of reading.
    It seems best to have performer think about other things than paper solving

  28. Here’s a followup URL for Nancy Zeltsman’s commissioning project.

    Here’s the composers commissioned so far:

    I like the thoughtful poses of Milton Babbitt and Carla Bley.

  29. stefano savi scarponi says:

    Here in Italy is the same. Spaces are becoming more narrow every year. So I founded my own ensemble but is hard anyway. As I said here several times, I think the problem is that contemporary music (maybe) is not so contemporary. In Europe I’m observing a huge change. Auditoriums are frequented only by people over 50. There’s an electronic “scene” (frequented only by under 40) that absolutely doesn’t care about “new Music” (the way we intend) present and past. That’s the situation. Ciao

  30. James Combs says:

    I think simple is great. However, I don’t think in terms of simple and hard. Once you move in one direction, its going to be what it is. Maybe people do write music purposely easy, that would be interesting as a concept. Thank god modern music lost a lot of the “clutter” from the classical and romantic periods. Maybe a ten minute right hand trill with the left hand running scales could work its way into minimalism or postminimalism. Wouldn’t be my cup of tea. Of course, with modern music brings other challenges which create brilliant sounds never heard until recently.

  31. John says:

    What are you talking about, David? don’t worry about the difficulty and try writing a GOOD piece next time

  32. Anonymous says:

    Hello over there! I´m danish so pardon my english.
    Composition is not about “good/bad” or “difficult/easy”. These terms belong in a spoiled and bored artistic enviroment. The key word is perfection. The musician knows, when he or she aprroaches music of this nature (perfection=artistic struggle and generousity=attitude) and the audience detect this right on the spot.
    Art does not imply what is good or bad since art is the perfection of a multitude of choices. Art does not suggest that any artistic output is easy or difficult since art in its perfection has no time for such debate. Try to define a piece by Paganini.

    If you start to wonder if you should go “easy” on the musician (=audience) you might as well abandon composition/art right away.
    If you ask someone else to try writing a GOOD piece, you fail as a friend. Art cannot be good since it must be perfection.

    Skovgaard Danielsen

  33. CB says:

    Speaking of the Zeltsman project – there IS an associated composition contest – accepting submissions through June 1. Just a suggestion.

    And Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkle fame) has recently accepted the commission. Very curious…

  34. Marcos Balter says:

    Looks like this thread may have reached its end, but I thought of offering my two cents now that I have come across it. Respectfully disagreeing with some of my colleagues, I welcome the (unfortunately) anonymous message from Denmark. It does little to music as art to think of it in such un-artistic terms such as “easy” or difficult,” or to flatten the concept of “virtuosity” into a single-layered phenomenon. The (noble) exceptions are works with pedagogical purposes, as “easy” is just an enabler of forging ahead.
    One should applaud composers who manage to pose complex questions within technical simplicity as much as composers who pose complex questions in complex ways. After all, artistic pluralism has become one of the most popular mantras among American composers for the past decades (even though at times it is used to disguise a prejudice toward Modernism, especially from 12-tone-scarred –turn-into-accessible baby-boomer composers, who can be just as prejudiced as their equally unhealthy “academic” counterparts). Assuming a certain technical knowhow, surface-level complexity or simplicity should arise from an honest pursue of artistry, not the other way around.
    As for fear of fewer or unsuccessful performances, one should keep in mind that there are many performers out there that actually seek out works that challenge them and/or the capabilities of their instrument. If the musical idea is solid, the right music will reach the right performer at the right time. Hopefully it will happen soon enough for the composer to experience it as imagined, but that is not even the most important goal for some. Music should not aim toward “easy” or “difficult.” It needs to say what it meant to say.

  35. I just came across this thread so Marcos it’s not at and end yet but maybe this will kill it!

    This is a dilemma worth working through. I am doing a recording of work of mine this coming week and I am finding the players are struggling with it. When I write my music I do try and work through some of material as best I can when the instrument is not my own. But I am finding even so I get things in that are quite tough. What I am trying to work through now is how to communicate the same ideas in a much simpler context. Does the music lose something by simplifying the music? Is there a “lost in translation” effect that needs to be taken into account? Not sure I am there yet as I work through these matters.

  36. Steve Layton says:

    Always look at whatever you’re asking for from a player, and say “is this as simple as I can notate this and still get what I want?”. And if your players are having problems, If you can articulate to them clearly what you were looking for it’s likely that they might be able to suggest some great alternatives that you’d both be happy with.

    I remember a piece of mine, where the cello, clarinet and violin had shifting patterns of quick regular, indefinitely repeated notes. At rehearsal, no problem for the cello or clarinet, but the quick repeated high notes on the violin turned out to sound ridiculous. The violinist herself came up with the idea to use an unmeasured tremelo instead, and the whole thing came off beautifully.

  37. Michael Asmara says:

    Mostly my pieces is very difficult to play, but that the sounds I want to hear, Of course we should know how to produced that sounds, and if the musician could not play it, then I always think there would be another musicians who love and can do better. So for me as composer first is what kind of sounds we want to hear, then the possibility to be produced.
    Because the standard of musician is always different and if we only focusing on musician we will never have progress. Remember that in his time the pieces of Schoenberg was very difficult to be played.

  38. Rusty Banks says:

    It’s very hard for me to separate the sound of the performance from the composition. After all, our job as composers is to organize sound and silence for aesthetic purposes. The difficulty level is such an audible part of it for me. A bad performance of a good piece is a bad piece for me. Take Beethoven 5, miss half the notes, and that’s a terrible piece (for that length of time). I would also argue that I’ve heard awful pieces salvaged by outstanding interpretive abilities.

    When I compose, it is almost always for performers I am familiar with, and is written to make the best of what they have to offer. Usually, this results in somewhat universally playable works. Sometimes, it may appear that I’ve written a very hard work though, but often that’s because it makes use of several of the performer’s favorite multiphonics or such.

    Some composers work like painters. They have an idea and try to execute it. I work more like a sculptor. I look at the resources for what possibilities may be inside. Many great works have been written from both of these approaches, and perhaps even more from a synthesis of the two.

    As to the original question, I bet Beethoven wishes Fur Elise was harder to play, so that many of the people who do, wouldn’t. :)

  39. Anonymous says:

    The more difficulty, the worse the performance, provided that the effort of the performers, the rehearsal time, and the composition’s artistic perfection are held constant.

    There are many different aspects of difficulty that may be isolated depending on how the performers practice and rehearse.