Sunday, January 28, 2007

Let's get that myth off the table

One of my teachers once served on a competition panel with Aaron Copland. Faced with a huge pile of entered scores, my teacher, rightly worried about making a fair decision, asked: "Can we really hear all of these?". Copland answered simply: "We can't. We give the prize to the most complicated score because it represents the most work."


How could Mr. C. -- of all people, you might think -- have gotten it so wrong?

Complexity, or better yet, density, of notation is not a reliable sign of the amount of work put into a piece of music. If you are working in a traditional style or idiom in which the way dynamics or tempi or articulation "work" is understood as part and parcel of that tradition, then one can add a lot of ink on auto-pilot. If you are working in a style or idiom in which all of the notated parameters are fixed by pre-compositional processes, and in particular those idioms -- like Babbittonian twelve-tone technique in which the parameters work together like clockwork, then again, it's auto-pilot time. But if you're working in a musical no-mans land, territory in which neither tradition nor an algorithm can guide you, every bit of ink can represent a wretching decision about the nature of the work. And a decision not to make a mark can be equally hard: letting elements go into the realm of interpretation, allowing performers to make choices in the absence of a well-defined performance tradition, is an act of considerable faith, and one not taken lightly.

The amount of work that goes into the training of a traditional musician, or into the development of an elaborate pre-compositional program has to be recognized, but the assumption that the less-densely notated score indicates that less work (less training, less cogitation...) has taken part in its production is simply false. Indeed, the reduction of a score to its most essential elements is often both a representation of an aesthetic of elegance and the product of long, hard work.

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