Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Practical Composer

On balance, it's probably better to be a practical composer. Everything else being equal, a more practical score will encourage more players and concert organizers, and a more practical working method will lead to less anxiety in the composing process. This isn't absolute, of course, as there will always be musicians who look for challenges, even the impossible -- virtuosity for its own sake -- and sometimes asking a musician to do more rather than less will actually encourage him or her to at least get the lesser part right. Moreover, there is (or at least should be) room for the idealists among us and, so long as no one gets bitter about well-intentioned but poorly realized or even unperformed works, we should be able to enjoy the luxury of impracticality.

Composers manifest their practicality in different ways. Harry Partch developed tablature-like notations for each of his instrumental innovations, so that players were instructed about the specific physical -- Partch would have said corporeal -- acts they were required to perform rather than confronted with a notation based upon abstract tonal relationships underlying his tuning practice. John Cage, with his mature works, never composed without a specific performer and performance in mind, and got each of his finished scores right off to his publisher. Henry Brant developed astonishingly efficient techniques for anxiety-free composition and performance of works with considerable complexity (see here). During the days when his ensemble was the main vehicle for his work, Philip Glass produced only the notation required by his own ensemble, often just parts with the minimum of markings and annotations, and not the time-consuming clean copied required by the traditional publish-and-then-perform system. And Iannis Xenakis, whose reputation was often mistakenly built around his book, Formalized Music (which, to be charitable, was a poorly edited mess), rather than his music, was in fact much less a theorist than a composer who was on the constant search for practical and efficient means of arriving at complex musical surfaces. The question of practicality is connected to that of complexity, but it is far from a simple parallel: practical means can lead to great complexity, while sometimes the simplest-seeming music is the product of considerable labor, cogitation, or just plain musicking.

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