Three scores sit on my desk that are, in theory, almost finished, waiting for dynamics. Just a couple of markings in bold italics and maybe a hairpin or two: loud, soft, and refinements of or transitions between these two. It would be easy enough to either go through the score and just add them instinctively, improvisatorially, or by chance or to devise some system for using dynamics to better project characteristics of other parameters in the score, or, even easier, just leave dynamics out of the score altogether, and identify them as a matter for the performers to decide. But each of these possibilities strikes me at the moment as a bit of a cop-out, not making a move I can actually believe does what is best for my notes. For some composers, the materials in their pieces are born with dynamic detail or gestures or have a prevailing dynamic mood — as soft or as loud as possible, for example — but my notes happen to have come into the world rather unemcumbered by dynamic shape and, if they have any dynamic profile at all, they seem to be both comfortable and robust enough, to my ears, to be nestled in that almost anonymous zone between mezzo piano and mezzo forte, with only brief excursions out of the zone. But all of the other aspects of the piece are so carefully done that just making a facile or overly broad assignment of markings risks appearing, if not actually being, insensitive and arbitrary.
The difficulty here is actually shared by many other composers, and the difficulty has several causes.
The first lies in the subjective, contextual, and transient nature of dynamics themselves. What a marking of forte may mean to a performer depends upon which instrument or voice is used, and in which register(s) and in which particular combination or passage. It may also depend upon the physical space in which one sings or plays. It certainly depends upon the conventions of style. How about forte in early music, which may only recognize forte and piano (if even those)? We certainly don't operate noewadays in an enviroment in which musicians will immediately understand dynamic markings as embedded in a particular local or historical style. What is the dynamic level of In C, for example? Or forte in 1950's/60's serial music, in which it is assigned a theoretically distinct position in a scale of dynamics? And if you have such a scale, is a dynamic marking absolute or relative? Are the markings to be scaled up or down for the particular set of instruments or voices in play?
The advent of recorded sound, with its necessary flattening of dynamics and the disconnect between the original sound level and the sound level the recording gets played at, has also affected our understanding of dynamics. Electronic amplication and the the use of loudspeakers have changed our relationship to amplitude (as well as spatial position) of musical sounds in substantial ways and I don't think we're even close to understanding what this means for music. We can probably agree, however, that much of the music that makes up the acoustical background radiation in our lives is music in which the conditions imposed by electrical amplification are — for better or worse — inescapable. From Bing Crosby to Les Paul or to Michael Jackson*, the prevailing image of musical dynamics has been to a large part determined by musicians dependent upon amplification. While there is probably no going back to a lost (and probably fictional) acoustical paradise in which dynamics were not constrained by electronics — as Heinz-Klaus Metzger put it: "Webern was the last composer before the advent of air conditioning" — there has surely got to be room for a musically meaningful use of dynamics in which the constraints of electronic sound production are not the overriding criteria.
* Isn't it strange that in all the discussion about Jackson's use of various technologies to modify his body that the most important bit of modification was that involving a microphone?