Monday, November 10, 2008

Division of Labor

The role of serious music in the larger economy is close to negligible in statistical terms, but the economics within a piece of music are far from simple. The problem is rarely that a piece has too many or too few notes, but rather that it has the wrong notes. And then: how are those notes distributed — in time, register, or assignment to personel? Last year, I had to put a string quartet I was writing on hold because I wasn't giving enough work to the primarius; the material at hand wasn't even allowing me to give the first fiddle an equal share of the work. Now, I've been contemplating a new piece for a soloist and an ensemble, and the traditional division of labor that one might find in a concerto, for example, in which soloist and ensemble have roughly equal numbers of attacks, doesn't appear to be right for the particular combination. There are example, of course, of works in which a soloist has a more diminished role (Harold in Italy, delightfully neither concerto nor symphony) and others in which the ensemble is reduced to punctuating the soloist's sentences (n.n.). I guess that the problem here is a compositional one: make the music for the soloist so vital and compelling that any quantitative deficit is a qualitative asset. Here's an interesting compositional problem: what is the least amount of work that may be assigned to a soloist and still leave it clear that the work is, essentially, one for soloist and ensemble?