Neatness Counts: Bucking Trends in Orchestra Notation

Neatness Counts: Bucking Trends in Orchestra Notation

The standardization of orchestral and notational practice can, if a composer isn’t careful, hold back musical creativity.

Written By

Ted Hearne

Bill Holab started his lecture on making exceptional scores and parts by making fun of the notation of Brian Ferneyhough—or at least singling it out as what not to do. Lines run into each other, lots of notes are crammed into a little space, and there are extraneous lines. Of course, you could say that a Ferneyhough score is graphically a work of art in and of itself, or that part of its value is that it confounds and challenges and seeks its own special way to obliterate or subvert the rhythmic grid. But it certainly doesn’t conform to a standard of what is preferable in music notation, and Holab made it clear right off the bat that as an engraver he works to make the act of reading music as simple and easy as possible.

Now, it’s clear that Holab is an engraver at the very top of his craft. He works for all the major publishing companies and also represents self-published composers, and his lectures were extremely useful. However, the more he spoke, the more I thought about the tenuous relationship between composers and orchestras.

Holab made another example of a Golijov clarinet concerto. There are sections where the time signature changes to reflect that a dotted-eighth or double-dotted-eighth gets the beat. So, originally, there would be a change from 3/4 to 2/6 or 4/12 or something like that. Adès does this kind of thing as well. Holab said that he rebarred this section so that the bottom note of the time signature was written as the note value itself, instead of the number representing that value. The clarinet player liked it much better, he said. This seemed to be validation enough, even though Golijov himself liked it better the way he wrote it.

Granted, this is a really small point, and this particular change didn’t perceptibly alter the sounding result of the music, only the way it looked on the page, but this kind of attitude has resounding implications. Holab had an extremely practical point of view about the whole thing—”This is a concerto. What orchestral player is actually going to practice a concerto?”

Here is where I draw the line. I don’t want to write music for people who feel that they are above practicing it. And I don’t care if it’s a “concerto” or anything else—how else can it be a challenging, interesting piece of music if it doesn’t require a little bit of work—technical or conceptual—from the performer?

Along these lines, we also had a wonderful seminar with two percussionists from the Minnesota Orchestra, Brian Mount and Kevin Watkins. These guys were extremely informative and good-natured in their criticism of our difficult percussion parts (admittedly, unnecessarily difficult in many cases). They also made it clear several times that they wanted to avoid creating an environment that was limiting for a composer, and they clearly did really practice our parts—a lot. This was, of course, totally great to see. Heartwarming, really.

One of the composers called for the timpanist to hit the copper bell of the drum, and there was massive resistance to this idea from the percussionists. “I didn’t do it for John Corigliano, I’m not gong to do it for you,” the timpanist was relayed as having said. I understand this mentality, given the price of the drum you’re asking a professional to play in an unconventional, potentially damaging way. However, some string players don’t like to play col legno and some piano technicians won’t let you prepare the piano or touch the strings either. Taking that mentality a bit further, some brass players don’t like to play extended high passages, some bass clarinet players don’t like to play high notes at all, some violin players don’t like to count many bars of rest, lots of classical musicians don’t like playing extremely repetitive music… the list could go on forever. You could say these are unfair comparisons, but one of the percussionists also compared the timpani request to asking a harp player to stand up and kick the harp. The question is: as a composer, where do you draw the line?

By the way, I wouldn’t want to cause any timpanist to feel like he or she is damaging their instrument. But it’s true that Adès calls for this technique in Asyla, and I’d love to know how timpanists deal with this problem. Maybe they use an old beat-up set of timpani. Maybe that should be a reasonable request.

There’s an idea that you need to learn all the rules before you break them. People revert to that adage all the time in music, but let’s think about it for a second. Really? All the rules? Like, the rules that tell you that above all else you must print orchestral parts on 9’x12′ paper? Or that you shouldn’t draw any extraneous lines on a score, or use unconventional time signatures, or ever put text in a box on your score? The rules never really end. Furthermore, obsessing over a mastery of “the rules” can be a great way to put off coming up with some actual original ideas.

You could argue that the two can easily go hand-in-hand, or that our standardized notation practice can accommodate any and all musical ideas and it is thus our responsibility to make it as easy as possible for our performers. And maybe theoretically you would be right. But at the end of Holab’s seminar, a composer who has been auditing all our seminars here at the Institute raised his hand and asked, “So, is it better to write a piece that isn’t difficult?” And he was asking this question with complete sincerity, as if the answer would actually determine the music he then created. This to me is backwards, and proof that the standardization of orchestral and notational practice can, if a composer isn’t careful, hold back musical creativity.