Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it

Interesting post over at Kyle Gann's blog touching upon issues of notation.

Now you may think this sort of thing is pure composer-nerd territory, but think about it for a minute: a "classical" composer is in a strange position in that he or she is dependent on others to realise his work; all the great ideas in the world are worth nothing if you can't figure out an effective way to communicate them to the performer so he or she can attempt to convey them to the audience (which you hope will consist of a least a few more people than you and your mates).

I sometimes wonder if all the exciting notation software we have available to us these days isn't stopping composers from really thinking about how they write things down. On the other hand, fancy clever notation can be a smokescreen to mask the lack of substance in a piece; there's a terrible danger that the means become the ends.

It's a long, thin, high tightrope to walk: Kyle's got a point about professional musicians' aversion to anything that makes them have to stop and think, but at the same time it's important for the composer to put his instructions across as clearly as possible. Morton Feldman's a great example of a composer who writes his music out in a fashion that often sems to defy logic; but his idiosyncratic presentation does convey an important idea about the music and how one should approach it, in a way that a more superficially straightforward approach wouldn't. I guess the bottom line is, if you're going to write something in an unorthadox way, that's fine, but make sure you know why you're writing it like that. And the same goes if you're writing it just how your teacher told you to.

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