Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How much should you know?

There is a radio interview somewhere on-line with Milton Babbitt, in which Babbitt seriously slams Paul Hindemith for Hindemith's idea that a composer should have some facility on all the instruments for which they write.  Babbitt's objection was that the limitations the individual composer has with regard to playing particular instruments would carry over to unnecessarily limiting the way one composed for the instruments.  

While I'm all for the eliminating unnecessary limits on a composer's imagination, I also think think it's useful to know more rather than less about how instruments work, but I don't think that either Babbitt or Hindemith has quite got this right.  Babbitt runs awfully close to defending a position of knowing less rather than more while Hindemith's position, valuing a certain established body of technique — craft — above all else, runs into Homo Faber territory,  more engineering than art.  I think rather more to the point is the idea that becoming familiar with an instrument as a composer is not only to determine how facile or difficult particular tasks on instruments (or voices, for that matter) might be, but to have a more intimate qualitative relationship to the instrument.  

This is illustrated by a story which Alvin Lucier likes to tell about commissioning a choral work from Morton Feldman.  Feldman asked Lucier about the range of the Brandeis Chamber Choir, which Lucier directed in the 1960's, specializing in a contemporary music repertoire. Lucier indicated that he had sopranos who could go so high and basses who could go so low. Feldman protested that he didn't want to know the extreme possibilities, but he wanted to know the range, meaning the range in which the choir had a consistent quality of sound, a fundamentally different idea and one that could only be answered based on the experience of working with closely with the particular choir.  Likewise, on instruments, it's useful to know how a sound will be produced because it tells you something musically valuable:  the tones using the open fingerholes on a flute or bassoon have a different qualities and possibilities from those using a lot of keys, for example, or the tones around the break between registers on the clarinet, which require some caution as they use either the shortest or longest lengths of tubing, and — especially with amateurs — can often speak quite distinctively as one moves between those lengths;  it's useful to know that a horn player, when muting by hand, may have to modify the pitch by adding a valve;  or knowing at least the basics about string fingering, and how it differs from the violin to the cello to the contrabass, which can be very useful in making passagework more clear...  Now, good players may well have musically acceptable end-runs around the technical problems composers pose, but I think that it is more responsible to the practice of music to keep these to a minimum.  Composers can, periodically, demand some magic tricks from players but if we want a constant stream of miracles in our scores, we have to be responsible for them ourselves.  

Most importantly, I suppose, when a composer knows something about the playing technique of a particular instruments, she or he has a better basis for being able to communicate with musicians.  Having just a bit of shared technique and technical vocabulary may often be enough to completely open up the dialogue with players, and the best opening is often when a composer can indicate with some precision that he or she is at the practical limits of his or her knowledge or ability and is respectfully seeking collaboration with a skilled and knowledgeable colleague, a useful step towards making better music together.  



Steve Hicken said...

This may be neither here nor there, but I don't see a fundamental difference between the (excellent) ideas in this post and Babbitt's notion that restricting your composing to instruments you actually play can be limiting.

Daniel Wolf said...


Babbitt's position was, in effect, that if a composer only had a rudimentary ability to play an instrument, the composer's writing for that instrument would necessarily be limited by trying to write only what he or she could play himself or herself, while the composer who didn't learn to play at all would not face such limitations. I can't follow this logic at all.

Anonymous said...

I also don't see any difference between your advice and Babbitt's comment. Knowing instrumental technique (a given for any composer) and knowing how to actually play an instrument are completely different things.

If I already know the useful range (and extremes), breath capacity, tonguing techniques, flutter, glissandi, mutes, etc., for a trumpet. What would I gain from learning to play (badly) a few scales or phrases?

The exception would be if you were looking for new 'extended' techniques.

Steve Hicken said...

I would disagree with Babbitt's position argued that way, too. I'm thinking of some good, solid, piano players I've known who were also composers. Their piano music seemed to be limited by what they themselves could do on the instrument.

Ben.H said...

Your examples also show the importance of knowing the performers for whom you're writing, their strengths and weaknesses, whenever possible. Didn't Feldman also start writing oboe pieces in 1970s, once he'd found an oboist who was good at playing softly in the highest register, where he most liked the instrument's sound?

There's also that story of Stockhausen writing a piece for Cathy Berberian which she couldn't perform, because it required her to whistle. She could handle all the most outlandish techniques Stockhausen demanded, but she couldn't whistle.

Daniel Wolf said...


I think it's very useful to distinguish between pieces intended for specific players, with all of their specific strengths (or weaknesses as the case may be), and those written for without a particular musician in mind and thus assuming a more common body of technique, for example with orchestral section players.

Interestingly, the distinction is not necessarily one that makes limitations, in that, following Cage, I would avoid asking a Berberian to whistle, while on the other hand, writing for orchestral musicians, I might well include a whistle, with the assumption that if one player can't whistle, there may well be another musician in the group who can whistle and the musicians as a group would be responsible enough to distribute the tasks appropriately.

Charles Shere said...

Babbitt and logic, oh my. If limited ability at an instrument produces limited writing for said instrument, then logically not knowing an instrument at all would result in not writing for it; I wish Babbitt had pursued that logic.

I've always been grateful for my highschool band teacher, who saw to it that I tried my hand at every wind instrument available. The trombone and flute eluded me, somehow, but not the others.

One year at Mills College I tried to introduce a similar hands-on instrument class in the one-month between-semesters period, suggesting that any and all faculty and students who wanted to should simple be able to drop in to a large room, pick up any instrument available, get help with it where possible, and gain familiarity with the thing. The idea was shot down. I think some faculty felt threatened by it.