Thursday, July 24, 2008


When future musicologists, should we survive the next century or two, turn to the reconstruction of late 20th and early 21st century art music, I reckon that dynamics are going to be something of a problem for those advocates-to-come of historically-informed performance practice.

The historical evidence is not particularly rich when it comes to dynamics, and contemporary written accounts of performance practice are rare.* While written scores may contain a large number of indications, it's far from clear what kind of range is intended, and whether dynamics apply equally to all instrumental resources. One composer is content with piano and forte, another might have 12 or more adjectives in play: are these terms to be applied only locally and/or relatively, or do they belong to some absolute scale of values? While the Italian marking remain widely used, many composers prefer a local language or an alternative lingua franca, and a small number of composers have used graphic or numerical notations for amplitude, so translation is an issue. The other important evidence, sound recordings, is, at this point in the cricket match, a source to be used with great caution, as the prevailing recording style is based upon a hot but rather compressed signal, with which dynamic differences are largely flattened. Digital recording and playback should, with increased available bandwidth, change this, but we're not quite there yet technologically and the flattened sound — identifiable with pop music — may be with us for a while, as it carries some degree of aesthetic inertia.

[Ironically, one minor source of direct information about contemporary performance practice may prove to be very useful in reconstructing the various dynamic styles of the day, and that is musicological research about historical performance practice in times earlier than our own, for the subtext of all of that research is, of course, how we do it now and how it differs from the past. The connection, for example, between the "terraced dynamics" discovered by certain twentieth century reconstructors of Baroque repertoire and a similar approach to dynamics in contemporary music, from Stravinsky to Nancarrow is real and instructive.]

All that said, I would not be surprised if future musicologists happen to look back and assign us into competing dynamic styles. There will be traditionalists, whose practice is as continuous as possible with the dynamic practice in conservatory-style 19th and 20th century music; this is the style in which the Italian terms will probably have the most stable exchange rates. There will be the amplificationists, plugged-in, usually mixed, and tending towards a loud and flat dynamic profile, sharing much with the production values of popular music genres. A subculture among the amplificationists will be that of the microphonists, whose interest in not in the loud, but in elevating the most quiet of acoustical phenomena into the world of the audible. There will be the as-soft-as-possiblers, pushing below the lower limits of traditional acoustic performance practice. ** There will probably be an all-acoustic loud-as-possible counterpart to the quietists. And finally, there will be a radical center, content with the dynamic possibilities of of a restricted set of signs, mostly soft and loud in whatever language, but never getting too close to either extreme.
*Rare but not totally absent. The Morton Feldman discussion list, MF, has recently had some interesting threads on dynamics, for one.
**For the record, I happen to think that while Feldman was influential if not critical to the development of this style, his own music's dynamic style was relatively soft, but entirely within the framework of traditional "quality" classical performance, such that the substance of the sound produced was never sacrificed to an absolute low volume. This is also in keeping with his style of articulation, which was not excessively tender, but rather more in the tradition of the pianism associated with the Skryabinistes.


robert bonotto said...

Where can I find the Feldman discussion list?
Robert Bonotto

Daniel Wolf said...


this very useful Feldman page will get you there:

the list is called "Vertical Thoughts"

Marcus said...


Just discovered your blog and am reading some posts.

RE: Dynamics. Why don't composers just indicate the decibels of sound they want measured at, say, 30 feet from the source? I imagine electronic meters or their offspring will be around for a long time, so no harm in using a little technology.