Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Dynamic Crisis: Blame Michael Jackson

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?      


Paul H. Muller said...

I am inclined to go with leaving the dynamics up to the players. This is because my music, an probably most new music, is played in unconventional acoustic spaces. You can plan and plot all you want when writing the score, but what if the acoustics of the performance space are problematic?

I play a lot in a wooden church that has abominable acoustics - there is no point even marking dynamics into the parts - we have to sort it all out in situ, as it were.

Bach, and the baroque in general, were famous for minimal dynamic markings. But when you have to play the same piece in two or three churches on the same day - as Bach did in Leipzig - it surely must have come down to what worked best in which building.

Daniel Wolf said...


how about reducing dynamics to either the baroque pair of p & f or only including hairpins, so that the desired contrast or changes are included, but not made absolute?

Elaine Fine said...

Dynamics and articulations are, for me, the most difficult and time-consuming part of writing music. That is where a composer has to make the kinds of decisions that performing musicians spend hours trying to work out in rehearsal. We have to figure out what the music is doing naturally, and then we need to use dynamics to reinforce that ebb and flow.

I think of the notes and rhythms kind of like what I think is called the "underpainting" in an oil painting, or, perhaps the sketching that a painter does on a canvas. The dynamics and articulations are the colors, the paint textures, and the contours. As much as I wish I could just write mezzo-forte and let the musicians make all the decisions (or argue over the decisions that need to be made), I feel an obligation to notate as much as I can.

Daniel Wolf said...


Could it be that instead of "we need to use dynamics to reinforce that ebb and flow", dynamic marking is actually more necesary to indicate when the natural or instinctual "ebb and flow" is contradicted?

If I were to write, for example, a clarinet line that begins in a chalemeau tone then quickly arpeggiated up a series of quick tones to a sustained altissimo tone and then came back down again, players would instinctively (both out of habit and the character of the instrument) give the whole a single dynamic curve (cresc - decresc) and, if this is what I'd like to hear, then minimal notation is required, at the very most just p and f at the troughs and peaks of the curve or a pair of hairpins. However, if I want some different dynamic profile, then more detailed notation is required.

When I imagine a piece with a uniform mf or mp dynamic, I imagine exactly that, a piece with a flat dynamic character, which is something I might sometimes want to hear. The problem of setting an absolute value for that mf or mp, with a real group of players, real instruments, and a real room, will inevitably require players to make decisions relative to those specifics and no amount of notation on my part will obliviate that.

Stefan Kac said...

I've experimented recently with using only three dynamics: p, m, and f. "Real world" results are still TBA at the moment. I like the idea of keeping things simple and leaving the finer details up to the players, yet I think I would feel too constrained with only two to work with.

Daniel Wolf said...

Stefan, when you think about it, the practice of using two signs, for loud and soft, actually implies a third, median, level, when neither loud nor soft is explicitly indicated. Quite an efficient system.