Monday, September 28, 2009


An old friend recently pointed out this title clip from the 1967 film of Casino Royale, with a dare that I couldn't blog about it.  The movie is notorious as an incoherent mess, due to a production gone wrong in just about every way a film can, proving that the more large ego-ed filmmakers and stars you can gather together the worse the outcome will be.  It ought to be unwatchable for too many reasons to count, but somehow, almost every awful bit manages to contain some spark that keeps you glued and — the neural receptors for pleasure and pain being as proximate as they are — willing to endure more.   

With the major exception of Alan Price's score to Anderson's O Lucky Man!, I actively dislike pop music soundtracks*, but Burt Bacharach's score here is not one of the film's problems, and although the score (much of it played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass) was very much part of the commercial music of the era, it has so many features that are untypical of mid-60's pop music that it ultimately has to be put into a category of its own.  First of all, it provides precisely the continuity that the movie's producers threw out when the last traces of the source novel were ultimately abandoned to the horde of actors, directors, and screenwriters who assembled this dog's breakfast.  If, however, with the passage of time, we can look — and listen — again to this film, not as a work of mainstream narrative, but as an effort — if only in part intentional — in '60s-pop-tinged avant-garde filmmaking, then the strengths of the score become even clearer.  

I will even venture that the block-like construction of the opening credits above reveals Bacharach standing in an authentic lineage, via his teacher Milhaud, back to Milhaud's mentor, Satie, and Satie's score for the ballet Parade, and the film insert Entr'acte, in particular.  While there are details of Bacharach's harmonic practice — modal progessions, chords with "added tones" — that immediately make a Satie-via-Milhaud connection, and the negotiation of all three composers with popular genres is obvious, the important shared features here are really formal, with the deployment, almost at random, of a limit set of blocks of distinct material without development in terms of tonality, figuration, or texture.  Where Bacharach here innovates is in the sound production, in which the various blocks are assigned distinctive dynamic profiles and discrete positions in the stereo field, an innovation in projecting the block structure which I find entirely within the spirit of the Satie-Milhaud tradition. 


* For that matter, I'm skeptical about the whole notion of a musical soundtrack for film; Robert Bresson's rejection of non-diegetic music almost convinces me, but I can't be that strict and serious: as long as we grant films license to suspend disbelief, there will be a place for music in film.


No alibi

The party is drawing to an end and there's no better way to send — that is, push — the last guests home than hammering out a round of standards on the piano.  Pure Gebrauchsmusik.  As I run out the welcome clock with As Time Goes By, someone grabs my shoulder and asks, come on, Deej, isn't that the kind of music you really wanna write? and all I can do is shake the shoulder free and reply No, I really am writing the kind of music I wanna write...  

Monday, September 21, 2009

Composing for the Bassoon: An Interview with John Steinmetz

(I first heard John Steinmetz, as both a bassoonist and composer, during the last Claremont Music Festival,  34 (!) years ago.   Nowadays, he's one of the most active classical musicians in greater LA and along the west coast, and his composing and performing has been extended to teaching and lecturing (If you don't know it already, I strongly recommend John's essay on Resuscitating Art Music which is one of the most sensible statements of its sort.)  This interview took place, via email, over the last week or so.  John's answers were usually so complete and well-articulated that my questions were mostly superfluous.)  

DJW: We take the bassoon's range for granted, as a good utility player with both a distinctive bass and altissimo and a central tenor range designed mainly to blend. For new music, can we extend the extremes and,  in the middle, how much pitch flexibility is there for microtones,  
bending, or even slides?

JS: The bassoon is a treasure-trove of weird and wonderful sounds. Whenever writing extended techniques, work with a player. My favorite  pieces using extended techniques were composed with players' help. Working with a player ensures that the effects are playable and that they sound  expressive and musical. The player's involvement also reassures other bassoonists that the effects are workable.

Low Notes

Wagner and Mahler sometimes wrote low A for the bassoon (there must have been bassoons with that note, but nobody makes them now). The Nielsen wind quintet ends with this note. Players insert a cardboard tube in the bell to change the lowest note from Bb to A. Paul Chihara uses this effect in his Branches. The tube disables low Bb and messes with intonation and resonance of other notes.

There are fingerings for "pedal notes"--really multiphonics with a strong low pitch. (For low A, finger low F and lift the left hand 3rd finger. Lip down and give it lots of air.) On some bassoons with some reeds, some players can play low A, low Ab, low G, and maybe lower. The pedal notes 
sound much clearer when reinforced by another instrument. Very few players are practiced at this.

High Notes

Notes higher than D (2nd line in treble clef)--the highest note in the Rite of Spring bassoon solo--are possible, and the repertoire includes Eb,  E (Ravel piano concerto, Harbison wind quintet, Daugherty Dead Elvis) and even F (Wozzeck, West Side Story Dances). (According to legend, Bernstein wrote the high F in West Side Story as a prank, to tweak his friend who  
would be playing the bassoon part. But his friend saw the note before the first rehearsal, practiced it, and played it to spite Bernstein. So this prank note stayed in the  score. Some players just leave it out, because it is doubled by other instruments.) Some bassoonists practice these very high notes and can play them reliably, but some players struggle with them. On some bassoons they require special reeds and bocals (the metal neck) that may limit the  
effectiveness of other notes. Notes above D are simply less trustworthy, they are difficult to play staccato, and they are much easier to play when slurred from a nearby lower note.

Some players have figured out ways to play even higher notes, and you might enjoy including these exotic sounds if you're writing for one of those players. I recommend not writing very- or super-high notes unless you know who's going to play the music.

Bends and slides

The bassoon has lots of flexibility for bends and slides, but each note is different in its capabilities. (The bassoon, as Lou Harrison once quipped, is the only woodwind not spoiled by the Industrial Revolution. It never got modernized or standardized or homogenized, and this the source of its character and the reason for its quirky acoustics and illogical fingerings.) Some notes can be bent with lip pressure, some bend up but not down, some vice versa. In general, higher notes are easier to bend than lower notes.

Finger glissandos are easy on open tone holes (holes that are not covered with a key); slowly sliding the finger off the tone hole produces a slide of a half or whole step. Covered holes may produce slides by opening/closing the key slowly. Some players are good at slides and bends;  
others find them intimidating. (I have been surprised that the relatively easy glissandos in my Sonata scare some very accomplished players.) Some players have worked out ways to play glissandos that cover a wider range; write these only for such players.

Here are some easy slides that work upward or downward: in the bass staff,  from A to B, from B to C, from C to D, from D to E, from E to F--and the same notes an octave higher (upper E to F is iffy). These glisses can be joined to produce a longer gliss that may or may not be perfectly smooth.

Low Bb to B-natural can make a slide up or down by moving the key slowly.  Same thing for low B-natural to C.

High note finger slides sound beautifully plaintive. It's easy to slide between high B and C and between high C# and D.

Bending pitch is more challenging at soft dynamics, when wind pressure can't be varied as much. (Players control pitch through a combination of wind pressure and lip pressure.) Players who use stiffer reeds will probably have more trouble varying pitch.

Bassoons are designed with "sweet spots" so that notes sit comfortably at a particular pitch level where maximum resonance occurs; bending notes forces them away from that comfort zone, where they may not resonate as much. Often a note gets softer as it bends away from its accustomed place; players have to compensate for this in order to maintain an even dynamic,  
and that compensation is unfamiliar to most bassoonists, although it's not too hard to learn for somebody interested.

Jazz bassoonists Paul Hansen and Michael Rabinowitz have worked out ways to bend and scoop notes appropriately for jazz styles. To do this, they have evolved flexible, responsive reeds and playing style.


Microtones are easy on many pitches, using altered lip or wind pressure or using special fingerings. Changing a pitch microtonally may also change its timbre. Very few players practice playing consistent, repeatable microtones, but all experienced players are used to shading the pitch of a note to fit its context.

Timbre changes

The bassoon can vary the timbre of most notes by opening and/or closing keys farther down the bore. This has the effect of adding or removing harmonics. This doesn't work for notes below low D. Alternate fingerings, available for many notes, can also be used for timbral effects. The low Eb and Db keys, used for resonance in many fingerings, can be opened or closed to alter the timbre of many notes.

DJW: Am I right that if you want specific sounds — like multiphonics — which are highly sensitive to the combination of player and instrument, some caution is in order when using them in pieces which you expect will be played by players you can't work with personally? This  
suggests that composers might usefully think of the bassoon very differently in solo and ensemble, particularly orchestral, contexts.

JS: Yes, I think this is a useful approach, and it also makes sense because special effects in orchestral writing are usually part of a big  texture, and so may not require as much specificity as the more exposed sounds in chamber music or solo pieces.

But, as usual, it depends. For me the first question is something like "What's the expressive purpose?" That helps me to know why a sound matters, or what matters about it. And when I know that, I can more easily figure out how to handle the technicalities. For instance, sometimes the mood or color or energy of a piece requires a very particular multiphonic sound. In that case, the composer must work with the player to find out how to produce a sound that fits the context, and if the piece is intended to be played by various people, then it will be important to use a sound that is easy to reproduce.

In other cases it's possible to give partial information about a sound and let the player work out how to do it. You can ask for a multiphonic that includes a certain pitch, or that has a certain quality ("noisy" or "includes some low sounds" or "gurgling, unstable" or "like a blender").  You might even be able to say "any multiphonic" if that suits the expressive purpose.

There are some multiphonics that any player can get, such as low F plus the right thumb Bb key. Other multiphonics are fussy and take some practice. Still others work only on some bassoons. There are books and charts about this stuff, but composers have been misled; always have a  
player try these things. One starting place is an old article of mine called "A Few Easy Multiphonics for Bassoon"  (These multiphonics are not as universally easy as I once thought, but some of them do work for many players.

DJW: How about the contrabassoon? It's gotten some attention from composers lately as a solo, even concerto, instrument. Is this a specialist instrument or will every professional bassoonist have access to and be able to double on it? What is a robust, reliable range for the  
contra? I've had the impression, in comparison to the bassoon, that there seems to be a lot less standardization and even some substantial recent innovation. Are we going to be hearing more from the contra in the future than just an "octave lower, octave slower" bassoon?

JS: Many bassoonists play contra, but not all. Not every bassoonist has access to a contra, and even those who double vary greatly in their comfort with the instrument. You're right that the instruments themselves also vary wildly; some are hard to play, and others work really well. Some have keys that are missing on others, so some intervals and trills are more difficult on some instruments. On the other hand, we now have some really terrific contra players, many of them members of symphony orchestras, with beautifully maintained instruments, sometimes with customized improvements. These people play with gorgeous sound, beautiful intonation, and technical elan. They have already started influencing the future, by commissioning and premiering works that feature the contrabassoon.

The instrument is designed to supply contrabass notes, so in my opinion it sounds best from (written) low Bb up two octaves. Because the contra usually plays a supporting role, most bassoonists are not experienced with playing solos on it, or with playing high notes. Notes above the staff tend to sound stuffy and can be unstable, although there are players who sound beautiful up there. The solo in Ravel's Mother Goose goes up to written G above middle C, and ensemble music in Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony goes higher. Recent virtuoso solo pieces have the contrabassoon screaming and wailing all the way up to (sounding) middle C. Jon Deak calls for contrabassoon multiphonics in Hyde and Jeckyll, but as I recall he lets the player  
choose. (And it's hard to tell the difference between a contra multiphonic and its low notes!)

During the 20th Century, composers sought expressive intensity by using instruments' extreme registers and special effects, but remember that all instruments have a "normal" range in which they are the most expressively supple, and in which the fullest, most resonant sound is available. Using notes and effects outside the normal range can be striking and highly expressive (I use a lot of this stuff in my own music), but in my opinion the most promising expressive potential is found in the normal range. I think this is especially true of instruments like the contrabassoon that were built to serve a particular function. (I'm also thinking of all those high-register double bass solos that overlook the gorgeous and absolutely unique sound of the instrument's low notes.)

I've heard about a new instrument, the contraforte, that a few players are trying. Apparently it is louder and has a clearer sound. We might be hearing more of those in the future.

DJW: I've recently heard that some players have taken up doubling on the French bassoon, with its different bore and keywork, for French orchestral repertoire. Is the difference between the systems too subtle, or might composing especially for the French bassoon be of interest to composers?

JS: The French and German bassoons diverged more than 100 years ago, and have developed separately since then. Although they play an overlapping  repertoire, they sound quite different and have different strengths. It  looked for a while like the French bassoon might go extinct, and many of  us thought this tragic. That instrument has a compelling sound, a superior cantabile, and a fleet and fantastic high register. Fortunately the French bassoon still has its champions, and as you say some orchestra players are now doubling, playing the French instrument for French repertoire. It's a wonderful instrument and it might very well be of interest to some  

Here's the Jolivet bassoon concerto played on French bassoon and on German bassoon.

DJW: With many composers coming from the keyboard, or even computer samples, we don't always get articulations for wind instruments right.  Moreover, there's a raging discussion about under- or over-marking scores. Do you have any suggestions about markings we have to make or markings we ought to be cautious about?

JS: In general, notation should help performers understand and realize the music's expressive intent. A mark that clarifies intent is good. A mark that helps the player to clarify intent for listeners is good. If the intent is clear without extra marks, don't add them.

It's not so simple, though. The marks available are insufficient to communicate the subtleties of phrasing and articulation that are possible, so we composers need to notate our music in a way that helps the player make good guesses about how to help this particular music to sound its  
best. In my experience as a player, seeing the notation is sometimes not enough; I may have to play and hear the music before I know what it needs. To make matters worse, many marks have ambiguous meanings or multiple meanings, and the same marks mean different things to different instruments. Even in standard repertoire people don't agree about what certain notations mean. There's a lot of confusion built in.

Here's my over-simple answer about how many marks to use: use enough to help the performers know what the music needs, and don't use any more than necessary. Sometimes adding marks helps; sometimes adding marks creates trouble. This is an art, not a science, and musicians have different tastes about how much information they want to see, and what kind. When you get stuck or confused, ask yourself about your musical intent.

Perhaps (this is just a guess) some music reveals its needs and character relatively quickly and easily, often on first playing, but other music becomes expressively clear only after a great 
deal of practicing and careful decoding of intricate notations. Both kinds of music can sound spontaneous and beautiful, but the second kind relies on lots of marks and lots of practice to make its intentions clear. In any case, there's no one right way to solve the notation problem.

Have a player play what you have written to see if it means what you thought it meant.

In standard repertoire as well as in new music, players often play differently than the notation instructs, in order to better serve the musical intent. We will slur unslurred notes, tongue notes under slurs,  shorten or lengthen notes, and so on. This is usually good news, because  even if the composer makes a notation mistake, the player will still try to serve the music.

Slurs. I think composers are most often confused about slurs. On strings and keyboards, slurs convey information about phrasing, but on the bassoon and other wind instruments, slurs are primarily instructions for articulation. The first note of a slur begins with a consonant--the tongue creates a "ta" or "da" by touching the reed--and then the notes under the slur are connected without tonguing, like notes sung on one vowel. When a new slur starts, the player makes another consonant. So if you want notes smoothly connected, like a melisma on a single vowel, put them under a slur. It's okay to slur across two notes of the same pitch; the player will tongue gently to separate the notes but make them sound smooth. Check with a player to make sure your slurs are possible; some note combinations are difficult to slur.

Articulation. An unmarked note is started with the tongue. The player won't know how hard or gently to tongue it (what consonant to use, or how accented to make the attack) and so will probably use a middling articulation until figuring out what the context calls for. If you want a  
series of notes to be tongued very gently--almost slurred--use a slur with dots or dashes over the notes, or just put a dash over every note. Because these notations have multiple meanings, add words that say "very smooth" or something similar. (For string instruments, slurred staccato produces notes with space between. Wind players looking at that notation will be  
confused, because sometimes it means "play this as a string player would," but sometimes it means "very gentle articulation.")

Weight. Accents indicate heaviness of attack. This is done either with harder tonguing or extra wind, or both. A dash can mean "lean on this note," but sometimes it means "make the note long." It's okay to put an accent or dash under a slur; the player will connect smoothly but give
emphasis with the breath.

Length. The bassoon is capable of a great variety of lengths, from a super-short staccato to a very long, smooth articulation that is almost like a slur. In between are more possibilities than there are notations.  Use words to indicate the expressive character you want, and this will  
help the player to know how short to play the notes with dots, or how long to play the notes with dashes.

An unmarked note is usually held for its full value. If you want the note shorter, then either make that clear in the character of the music, or put a dot above the note, or notate a shorter value. A dash sometimes means to play a note full value. A dot and dash together mean "a little bit shorter."

Dynamics not only indicate loudness; they are also clues to expressive character.

DJW: Finally, is there any recent repertoire for bassoon, as soloist or as ensemble instrument, that stands out for you as examples of getting the bassoon right?

JS: This is a great question! There are many, many ways to get the bassoon right, since the instrument is versatile. Here are a few pieces I have  enjoyed playing or hearing. Maybe that means these are well written for the bassoon. These are just a few that come quickly to mind:

Mario Lavista, Responsorio for bassoon and two percussion. Recorded on "Bassoon Images from the Americas," Albany Records, TROY 608. Expressive writing that includes evocative multiphonics.

Donald Crockett, Extant for bassoon and chamber ensemble. Published by MMB music. Xtet plans to record this.

John Deak, The Bremen Town Musicians for wind quintet. Short audio excerpt available here.

Wind Quintets by John Harbison, Elliott Carter, and David Maslanka. Also Carter's woodwind quartet, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy.

There's a very pretty bassoon solo in the middle movement of John Adams' Naive and Sentimental Music.

Alex Shapiro, Deep for contrabassoon and electronics. On "Notes from the Kelp," Innova 683. Audio clip available here.

Alex Shapiro, Of Breath and Touch, for bassoon and piano. On "Beck and Call," Crystal 846. Audio clip here.

Bill Douglas, Partita for Bassoon and Piano, published by TrevCo.

Gernot Wolfgang has written several terrific bassoon pieces.

David Maslanka, Music for Dr. Who, for bassoon and piano. A short piece that takes the bassoon into some unusual expressive territory, with very expressive use of some extended techniques.

For good or ill, my ideas about the bassoon inform my compositions for the instrument. See the list here.

Also, to hear another set of possibilities, check out the jazz bassoon playing of Doug Hansen and Michael Rabinowitz.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On the Impossibility of Imagining the Erotic Charge of the Classical Minuet

Social dancing has its functions.  One of the most powerful of these was made vivid for me one Saturday night, twenty years ago, in a village in the Southwest of Ireland.  The dancing floor was crowded the entire evening (my wife even persuaded me, awkward, 6'4" me, to join a dance or two or maybe even three or four, Murphy's Stout being an excellent lubricant of inhibitions). This being a routine event in the community, many of the dancers were very good, but one young pair clearly stood out for the excellence, duration, and intensity of their dancing.  When I pointed them out, one of my cousins explained that they had been engaged for several years, but had had the date set back three more years, as the fiancee's older sister, long considered not to be the marrying type, had suddenly become engaged herself, thus pushing their date back on the calendar, as her parents would now have to save up for an additional wedding.  It was clear that the dancing of the young couple —  a pious and chaste pair — was a prime vehicle for the sublimation of physical aspects of their relationship that had for them been delayed by the older sister's sudden retreat from an expected spinsterhood.

In preparation for a small commission for chamber orchestra, I've recently spent some time with classical symphonies, particularly earlier works of Haydn and Mozart.  The sense of the contrast between the more discursive sonata movements with the song-like slow movements and the cheerful finales is all familiar and sensible to me, but while, in principle, the triple metre dance movements, the minuets, should make sense, I have no real access to them.   In their subdued manner, I would like to imagine them playing out some of the same sublimated eroticism I watched on the dance floor in Ireland, but the damn things are SO gentle and subdued — even when Mozart pulls one of his asymmetric phrasings off — that such an image is impossible.   No wonder they switched to scherzos.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An age of repertoire, not of works too big to fail

I'll risk some historical over-generalization and make the claim that music moves between periods of rapid innovation, marked by singular works exemplifying the particular innovations, and periods of consolidation, in which the technical gains of the innovative era are refined and developed as elements, conventions even, of musical repertoires.   The extreme experimentation of the late 14th century, for example, was followed by the consolidation of the 15th; the radical innovations of early opera were soon enough followed by the establishment of a fairly strict regiment of conventions. 

I will further claim that we are now well into a period or consolidation, one in which both the most apparently traditional and radical strains of repertoire are better characterized by features broadly shared rather than by striking individual stylistic or technical traits.   

Which brings me 'round to the new music-political news of the day: the New York Philharmonic announcing a $10 million gift from Henry R. Kravis to support composers-in-residence and a biannual commission of some 250 grand.   This is clearly good news, and the selection of Magnus Lindberg as the first comp-in-rez under the gift is a solid choice.   However, the decision to award a single very very very large commission for a single work of new music is not so good.  

As a commenter to Lisa Hirsch's fine blog , Iron Tongue of Midnight, complains, it would have been much better to slice that commission in, say, ten parts, which would have had a more significant impact across the new music community and forced the orchestra to put at least that many premieres on their calendar.  Instead of putting all of their money on a single composer, there would be a greater field of opportunity for innovative work.  As it is, a commission of this size — basically unheard of in the new music world, in which, let's face it, 25K is a large commission — puts incredible stress on the success of a single piece by a single composer.  It literally becomes a piece that is too big to fail.  

Unfortunately, pieces which have been built up as too big to fail have a pretty lousy track record of near misses (Repons) and total failures (Montezuma, anyone?), and when expectations are so high and so much money and prestige is at stake, commissioners will feel obliged to make safe, familiar choices among composers and composers selected will feel obliged to play it safe with their works.  But in an alternative environment in which newly-commissioned works of music would be more frequently encountered, the whole calculation of risk falls another way and, while there will certainly continue to be room for commissioning composers who are already known quantities on the circuit, there will be room for some unconventional choices as well.  Moreover, it seems to me that this approach would also be a better fit for our current age of repertoire, as both the diversity and commonalities of the various strains of new musical production cannot be represented by singular examples;  the old, institutionally-nourished masterwork ethic is no longer operative.


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.  


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Gift giving?

Do you find it tough to buy gifts for the composer in your life? Here are some suggestions:

(1) Twelve-tone dice. Especially suited for the composer who wants to combine 12-tone and chance techniques. Not suited for a composer with an interest in just intonation.

(2) A Suzuki Bass Melodeon.  Just the thing for someone who wants to add a bass voice for his or her melodica consort.

(3) A Richard Binder Music Nib for Pelikan Pens.  Yes, some of us still do it by hand, and just hearing the words 1.1-mm extra-smooth, very wet stub with slight added flex is pillow talk to the dedicated composer-calligrapher.

(4) The Noligraph.  I've blogged about it here before.  It's really just five ballpoints lined up in a little holder, but still a perfect stocking stuffer for the composer who likes to sketch on the sly on the backs of unpaid power bill envelopes, cocktail napkins, and the aprons of diner waitresses at half-past two in the morning.

(5) A Morgan motorcar .  To hell with that other stuff, I'd like one of these, please.


Composing for the Trumpet: an Interview with Joe Drew

(Trumpeter and composer Joe Drew specializes in new music and, under the nom de blog, Jodru, is the most prolific contributor to the AnaBlog associated with the Analog Arts Ensemble.  Satie once claimed that "with six trumpets you can do anything".  The possibilities which Joe describes here suggest that with one trumpet you can do almost anything.  I predict that, after this interview, there will soon be a slew of pieces featuring extreme pedal tone half-valve glissandi with plunger mute. This interview, which took place via email, is the second in a series.)

DJW: A generation or so ago, if you wrote for trumpet, that meant a Bb instrument, maybe a C, and some players might have a cornet as well. Now, it is not unusual for players to be ready to play Bb, C, D trumpets, piccolo trumpet, with some players specializing in historical instruments (natural trumpets, the F trumpet of late romantic music, even keyed bugles) and to play flugelhorn as well as cornet. What is the basic set of equipment that an orchestral player will have? What about a new music specialist?

JD: Every orchestral player will have a Bb, C & piccolo trumpet (pitched in A & Bb). Most students own all three horns by the 2nd or 3rd year of their undergraduate studies. That trio of horns will be all most gigging trumpeters need. If you are seeing an American orchestra performing German music on rotary trumpets, those players most likely do not own those instruments. They're probably owned by the orchestra or a school where one of the trumpeters is on faculty. 

A very common misconception about the C trumpet is that it's favored by orchestral players because it is brighter than a Bb. It isn't. The transpositions are much easier on a C trumpet. The American orchestral sound is so bright that somehow that basic sound and the prevalence of the C trumpet got conflated into this myth.

The next horn that most people would buy is an Eb/D. The D trumpet is most commonly used on the 3rd part in Baroque pieces, and the Eb is what most people prefer to use on the Haydn or Hummel. Owning an Eb/D also gives you more transposition options in an orchestra.

It is not at all unusual for orchestral trumpeters to have a whole variety of horns for different pieces. Gerard Schwartz liked to play the Haydn on Bb. Some guys would never dream of touching the Brandenburg on a standard piccolo. I've been to auditions where people lugged along a G trumpet just to play certain excerpts. Most players stick to that basic trio, although there is no universal system.

For many professional trumpeters, if a piece required them to use a flugelhorn, they'd have to borrow it. Same with cornet. Neither instrument is used enough for trumpeters to feel that they have to own one. That being said, it is not uncommon for a trumpeter to own all 6.

Historical specialists tend to play both the natural trumpet and dabble in the cornetto, although the players who do both equally well are rare. Most tend to focus on one in particular. In an ideal world, every trumpeter would learn the natural trumpet, because it strengthens your fundamentals so thoroughly.

A new music specialist could play most of the received repertoire with that basic trio of horns. You have to get pretty deep into the specialty before you start to require things like quarter-tone valves and double bells, but increasingly, you are going to see more and more trumpeters with that gear. I'm currently setting aside shekels so that I can add a quarter-tone valve to my flugelhorn, for instance. I've put it off for too long!

For the record, I have seven horns, but instead of the Eb/D trumpet, I have an Eb with 4-valves and a regular D trumpet.

DJW: I'm a fan of the old virtuoso cornet literature. With the growing use of the flugelhorn, is the cornet still an option for composers?

JD: The cornet definitely is an option for composer, even though they can't expect every trumpeter to own one. Aside from those old virtuoso pieces, the most famous piece that requires a cornet is A Soldier's Tale, and most people play all of that repertoire on trumpet. Though the trumpet and cornet are identical notationally, the sound is quite different, and a trumpeter can't just pick up a cornet and automatically sound good on it. If someone is going to play A Soldier's Tale on cornet, they are going to spend quite a bit of time getting comfortable on the instrument. Notes just lay differently on a cornet, and in that piece especially, the minor differences between the trumpet and the cornet can really trip you up.

The flugelhorn is much easier to switch to from a trumpet, although the sound difference is enormous.

DJW: What is a secure standard range for professionals, and how secure are the possible extensions both down- and upwards? If in doubt about the range is it more diplomatic for the composer to write out ossias or to let the player decide what to do? What endurance issues are raised by using extreme registers?

JD: The secure standard range really is what you read in the textbooks: from the low F# below the staff to the high C above the staff. A composer can expect any professional trumpet player to have that range. On the high side, it's not asking too much to go another whole step higher to the D. The low side is a different story. Most trumpeters can comfortably play a half-step below the F#. There are two common orchestral excerpts (Carmen Prelude & Ein Heldenleben) which require a pedal F that most trumpeters play by kicking out their valve slides and using false fingerings.

The possible extensions are where writing for trumpet gets highly variable. Since we're talking about classical music, I'm going to stick to what classical trumpet players can do. A lead jazz trumpeter is capable of extreme high notes which are not possible for most classical players. When I was at Yale, the Philharmonia was doing a piece by Timothy Geller, and we were all dying, because he'd written these unplayable parts where the trumpets would scream on high F's and G's for long passages. He was surprised to learn it was unreasonable, because he'd written it with the input of a lead jazz trumpeter.

I've attached a chart which outlines what is reasonable for extremely proficient professional classical players. On the high side, the high F (F6) is not unreasonable to ask. The G above that is probably pushing it. This upper extension on the standard range is either going to be very secure for a player, or it's not. Chances are, if they can get those notes, they're secure up there.

The pedal side is where it gets interesting. The pedal range down to C3 is accessible enough that a composer can ask for any of those notes from a professional. This range takes preparation to play accurately, but it is very secure. Below that, and you'll draw a blank with most trumpeters. However, these notes are not hard to get, and any trumpeter at any skill level can learn to play them in about 5 minutes! From F#2 to E1, the lower lip actually has to be outside of the mouthpiece. Since this is not a standard practice, composers shouldn't expect any trumpeter to be able to do it, but it is a wonderful sound. It's worth working with a trumpeter to get it. And just in case anyone thinks this is some kind of kooky 'new music' extended technique, just listen to this recording from 1902.

DJW: That's fantastic — you really understand why Robert Erickson named his solo piece Kryl. If the composer is in doubt about the range, is it more diplomatic to write out ossias or to let the player decide what to do, switching instruments for example?

JD: Switching instruments will give you a different sound; so, a composer should decide what's most important in the piece. Classical players like me will often use the piccolo to cheat on lead parts. To us, it's a fairly accurate imitation of the nasal sound of a jazz lead player, but put it next to the real thing, and the difference is immediately recognizable.

An ossia is certainly one way to go. Trumpeters will already take things down an octave without being asked! Diplomacy shouldn't be a concern. As all composers know, if they ask for something abnormal, the musicians will think that they're 'an idiot'. That's just a fact of life. However, professional musicians are also grown ups, and they're used to working around abnormal demands in a score. The best thing to do is make your intentions as clear as possible on the written page and deal with a player's limitations in person.

DJW: Are there leaps between registers we can ask for with some confidence, or are there some that should be avoided at all costs?  

JD: Leaps from the register below middle C to above the staff are difficult to execute on sight. A little practice makes short work of them, though. The standard range of a trumpet is small enough that leaps aren't too big of a problem. As Patty said about the oboe, we're not a piano. The leap from low C to high C is executed by a dozen facial muscles that are constricted by a metal ring that's less than an inch wide. So, it's a much more physical leap on a trumpet than it is on a piano. A composer should simply bear that in mind, however. Just because it's harder for us doesn't mean it should be avoided.

DJW: What endurance issues are raised by using extreme registers?

JD: Fatigue on the trumpet is a result of the pressure from the mouthpiece on our lips. The metal restricts the flow of blood. Imagine doing a bicep curl with a metal band clamped around your bicep. It would be a lot harder, right? Well, that's what playing the trumpet is like. As we go higher, the opening in our lips (aperture) gets smaller. The longer you play, the more swollen & tired your lips get, just as your legs wear out during a race. After a while, they wear down to the point where it becomes impossible to maintain the small aperture you need for the high notes. To return to the weight lifting analogy, it's the same as how your arms get rubbery after a weight lifting session. After long periods of exertion, our lips get rubbery too, and it's just harder to exert the finite control over them that we need to in order to play the instrument. 

The endurance of players varies widely. It's difficult to give a standard guideline for a composer to avoid wearing out a player. The key thing is to give us time to recoup. Sometimes, just a half beat where we can take the horn off the lips a bit helps get the blood flowing back in, and we're good to go again. 

There is no endurance factor for the low register. The only thing to bear in mind is that if you ask a trumpeter to play in the low register for an extended period of time, he will kind of be stuck down there. When you play 2nd on an entire classical symphony, you've been in your low setting for so long, that it's not easy to play in the high register for a while.

DJW: Let's move on to mutes. Straight, Cup, Harmon, Bucket, Solotone, Practice, any of the above in Metal or Fibre, playing in the stand, or just using your hand: what is the basic spice rack that every player will have, so that, for example, an entire section will use the same mute?

JD: Straight, Cup, Harmon, Plunger, & Practice. Every trumpet player will have one of those, and if they don't, they'll be willing to buy one to play your piece, because they know they'll need it eventually. There are tons of different mutes, and one trap to avoid is writing off-brand. When a composer asks for a mute that's not being made anymore or is really hard to track down, it just reduces a player's incentive to perform the piece. You may love the sound of the obscure mute you've discovered, but bear in mind, that not everyone will be able to find it.

DJW: The standard notation for muting is a binary + and -, on and off. What's the best notation for transient muting (moving between open and closed) or muting with a specific rhythmic profile?

JD: There really isn't a standard notation. Every player will be familiar with 'con sordino' and 'senza sordino'. A composer is always best suited by settling on a notation that's clear. If someone is writing a lot of mute changes very quickly, which is a nice effect, the notation would need to be concise. A 'cs' or + work just fine. If someone is giving specific rhythms to the mute, just put it above the staff (see below).

DJW: Since each mute affects the spectrum in different ways, a muted trumpet is not automatically a _quieter_ trumpet (indeed some mutes are at their best when used with strongly changing dynamics). Relative to the open trumpet, what are the effective ranges of the mutes? Which mutes hide the player more in a mixed ensemble and which make the instrument more penetrent?

JD: You make an extremely important point: mutes do not make a trumpet softer. If a composer writes 'con sordino' without specifying a mute, most trumpeters will put in a straight mute (I prefer a cup mute). Neither the straight or the cup mute deadens the sound of a trumpet the way a mute on a violin does. It simply changes the color of the sound. A muted trumpet can still be deafening. A straight mute makes the trumpet so nasal that it actually cuts through the ensemble, much like an oboe. The cup mute mellows out the sound. It's definitely easier to blend with a cup mute than a straight mute.

Composers tend to think that a trumpet must be muted to blend in with softer instruments in a chamber ensemble. No, no, no, a thousand times, no! A trumpet is capable of playing extremely quiet dynamics akin to subtones on a clarinet. (If you'd like, I could record an example). When I'm working with composers, I often find that they only have a mute in because they want the trumpet to blend with other instruments at a quiet dynamic. They are always surprised to learn that the mute is not necessary for that! Moreover, the straight mute, in particular, changes the sound of the trumpet so drastically that it strikes me as almost insensitive to ask for it just to have less volume. A composer who writes 'con sordino' is really asking for a timbre change; so, they should give a little more thought to the marking than, "I want the trumpet quieter".

The Harmon mute will soften the sound significantly and the practice mute completely deadens it. So, those are mutes that genuinely quiet the instrument, but again, the timbre change with them is extreme. Composers who are writing for mutes should make sure they are getting the timbre they want. The player can adjust his volume on his own.

You can play any mute over the entire range of the instrument. Mutes like Harmons and practice mutes make the extreme registers too difficult to play extensively. Other than that, there's no real limitation for a muted trumpet, particularly with the standard straight or cup. And I hope when composers catch on to the magic of the extreme pedal register with a plunger mute, you'll see a lot more writing for it! The trumpet can sound like a didgeridoo or a herd of elephants down there. It's amazing.

DJW: Speaking of the didgeridoo, how about using the mouth cavity to reinforce particular overtones? Is this as effective with the trumpet as with the low brass? What is the best notation for this — vowels?

JD: We are dealing with much smaller spaces than the low brass; so, the differences tend to be subtler. However, the mouth cavity is an extremely efficient way to manipulate the sound of the trumpet. There is no standard notation for this, and a composer would need to work directly with a trumpeter to figure out the range of possibilities. The difference between an 'a' position and an 'e' position of the tongue yields a very minute change in timbre, but for some composers, the difference would be fraught with drama. Articulation differences are much more acute. Say "ta da ga ha ka tee dee kee ghee" and then imagine that on a trumpet. Berio's Sequenza is a great place to start discovering the difference.

DJW: One real advantage of trumpet players is that they usually have a hand free. What extra work can we give a trumpet player?

JD: Bear in mind that playing one handed is stressful. There are certain pieces where I play for a long time with just one hand holding the trumpet, and I need to do some serious stretching afterward.

Keeping with the phonetic theme, composers should look to Berio and Stockhausen for just how rich this tonal palette can be. With the right mute and hand position, the trumpet can produce almost any phonetic sound. Cootie Williams was brilliant at making the trumpet speak.

Samuel Adler's Canto has the trumpeter tap on the instrument with the fingernails. There are all sorts of things we can do with our left hands. On a lot of my concerts, my left hand is fiddling with knobs while I play. That's a whole other ball game, but signal processing is definitely something that could use some compositional guidance. It would be great to have composers thinking about the trumpet that way.

DJW: Joe, off the top of my head, I get: turn pages, mute, change mutes, make percussive sounds, adjust or remove the mouthpiece, adjust the tuning slides or spit valves, remove the slides...

JD: Yes to all of this. Removing the slides while you are playing is probably the only thing that wouldn't work too well, because they aren't that easy to remove. However, there are pieces where the valve slides are removed beforehand and the effect is wonderful.

DJW: What can a player do with a half-valve (the valve is pressed 1/2 way down so that the portion of extra pipe associate with the valve is open in parallel to the ordinary length of pipe)?

JD: Anything. Literally, anything. After the unawareness about the dynamic range, the most common thing that surprises me about composers is that they are unaware that the trumpet can gliss. You can gliss over the entire range of the instrument with a half-valve depressed.

The half-valve also creates all sorts of beautiful timbre changes. For instance the B on the 3rd line of the treble clef sounds like an old lady moaning when played with a half-valve. Like Cootie with his plunger, we can imitate almost any sound with our half-valves. Talking about all this makes me realize that trumpeters really should get all this written down for composers. It's unfortunate that you have to work so closely with the performers to learn what an instrument can do, but that's how advances are made.

Berio asks for a few things in the Sequenza which just didn't work well, and he didn't find that out until Thomas Stevens got his hands on the piece. The reason Stockhausen's music for the instrument is so well-written is because he was working, often in seclusion, with his son. Come to think of it, those pieces for Marcus do represent a sort of manual for trumpet technique that would serve most composers well.

DJW: What about articulations: how much notation do you like to see on a page? I think that many composers have a weakness, coming from the piano especially, when it comes to slurs and articulations on other instruments.

JD: I don't have a personal preference. I think all composers have had experience working with gigging musicians who really prefer to have all the information they need on the page. If you care about the articulation, write it in. Trumpeters aren't used to seeing detailed articulations anywhere outside of method books, and as professionals, we get really lazy about it. So, if you get hyper specific, expect some grousing behind your back, but there's no reason to avoid it. We can deal.

DJW: What's the current standard for vibrato in trumpet playing?

JD: There is none.

DJW: Can players reliably respond when a composer asks to turn vibrato on or off or specify the width and speed of the vibrato?

JD: Yes. Trumpet vibrato can be regulated with extreme precision, regardless of how it's produced. A specific request aside from something basic like 'molto vibrato' will probably be new for most trumpet players, but there isn't a professional trumpeter who couldn't produce a rhythmic vibrato. A flutter tongue is another story, though!

DJW: Aside from the Stockhausen — of which you're a great advocate — what are some other examples of state of the art composing for trumpet?

JD: I know, too much Stockhausen, right? The thing is that he didn't just write a lot of music for us. He created an entire operatic role for us, like Brünnhilde or Siegfried. In my experience, both trumpeters & composers learn so much about the instrument from the pieces he wrote. Spending even 5 minutes with a piece like Oberlippentanz expands their perspective enormously. So, Stockhausen is a great starting point for contemporary trumpet.

Peter Maxwell Davies continues to write wonderful, very difficult music for the instrument. Mark-Anthony Turnage gave us a lovely little piece. Although I don't find it very interesting musically, Olga Neuwirth wrote a nice concerto based on a solo piece which gives us quite a bit to do. These are all straightforward concert pieces, and thank God we are getting new repertoire in that arena, because let's face it, what we have is crap.

John Williams tried to write a new standard concerto for us in the 90's, to replace the Haydn, and it's warmed over Arutunian, which is abysmal to begin with. For a composer who's interested in writing a trumpet piece, if they check out our standard body of repertoire, they're going to hear a lot of garbage. It's no wonder that composers have a hard time getting inspired to write for us!

Some of the most exciting music now is written with the new sonic awareness of the instrument that composers like Stockhausen and Berio have given us. You see a lot of effect-driven pieces, which, for me, are not too successful musically, but they are much more enjoyable listening experiences than something like the Halsey Stevens sonata. Also, they are infinitely more fun to play. You are also seeing a lot of music written for hybrid instruments with quarter-tone valves and double bells.

These are all very exciting developments, but we're still waiting for some composers to come along and turn all this into great music, if you know what I mean. As with anything, a composer can get lost in all the possible effects of a trumpet and lose the thread of what they want to say with a piece. If you want to make a melodic statement, use our best models: 2nd movement of the Hummel, Enesco's Legende, and Scelsi's Four Pieces. If you want to make a sound sculpture, there's no better model than the Sequenza.

I also think one of the basic truths of contemporary brass music is that it all happened in jazz first. The basic model of composers co-opting things that they admire from jazz trumpeters has served us very well.

If we're going to close (pity because it's been a lovely conversation), I would just put out a basic plea to composers that the trumpet is vastly more expressive than you've been lead to believe, and clearly, we need better music!

And here's a brief list of pieces that have really done wonders for our repertoire:

Berio, Sequenza X (The piano is so often forgotten here. using the piano as a resonator is a wonderful device.)

Stockhausen, Michael's Journey Around the World (This is an encyclopedia of extended trumpet techniques.)

Scelsi, Four Pieces for Trumpet (A great marriage of effects and music, and a wonderful example of how melodic one note can be.)

And others worth checking out:

Rebecca Saunders, Blaauw
Peter Eötvös, Jet Stream
Toru Takemitsu, Paths
Robert Erickson, Kryl

Peter Maxwell Davies, Sonata for Trumpet in D

N.B. :  In the original version of this interview, the score by Timothy Geller was misidentified as a work by Martin Bresnick.  

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Composing for the oboe: an interview with Patty Mitchell

Patty Mitchell,  oboist/English Hornist is well-known online as the author of the the blog oboeinsight, a lively diary of playing, teaching, the mysteries of reeds, and almost everything else that goes into a professional musician's life.  As a composer, I find it very useful to listen in when instrumentalists and vocalists shop talk about their instruments and music written for them, and Patty's blog has long been one of my favorite sources of high-level oboe intelligence.  (This interview, which took place by email over the past few days, is intended to be the first of a series of conversations with instrumentalists about writing for their instruments.) 

DJW: Let's talk about range. We all know to take caution about squawking low Bbs and love the high f in the Mozart quartet, but what are the secure ranges for amateurs and for professionals? Are there breaks between registers or particular note combinations that ought to be avoided? And what about leaping between registers — avoid it, ration it out, or no problem?

PM:Aw, range ... that's always an issue, isn't it? I LOVE a low B-flat. But if you want to guarantee it's appearance writing a pianissimo B-flat would be a very silly thing to do. We can't mute our oboes at that point. So I would never suggest a pianissimo B-flat unless you are having us move down to it and having it as a final note without an attack. In other words, slurring down to it (as long as it isn't from a B which can be problematic because we have to slide) isn't as big an issue. It's the attack of a note that makes it especially difficult. Mozart, in his Piano Concerto #21, has the 2nd oboe playing triplet low Cs at the end of the piece that are killer. With the older oboes that wasn't an issue. But now? We mute the darn thing! (I just stuff my cotton swab in the bell) Then it's not so bad. Dvorak wrote low notes and I despise him for it. We can mute all but the low B-flat and low B. Then no sound will come out. Some players remove their bells to play Dvorak and that seems to help them; it throws the balance/weight off for me, so I don't do that.

A "secure range" would be from low B-flat (while keeping in mind what I wrote above) to a high F. But we can play higher. I expect my students to play up to high F by the time they are in high school. The sooner they learn those notes, the easier they are. Asking us to play them pianissimo is, again, more than a little difficult ... but Ravel sure loved to do it! (Listen to the first entrance (?) in the second movement of his piano concert (in G). Killer hard, but SO lovely when it works!

Leaps can be problematic. If you want a donkey-like sound, though, we're your instrument! (Listen to Richard Strauss and the stuff he gave EH ... lots of donkey there!)

Bad fingering combos: yes, but it's tricky to explain. Low B-flat to E-flat ... can't do it quickly so don't ask us to, but we can do it ... we have to get a bit of "nose grease" (you'll see an oboe player quickly put his/her little finger up to the side of the nose and just get it a bit greasy ... really!) so we can slide. Sliding TO the low B-flat from the E-flat is easier than the opposite, but both can be done ... (Tchaikovsky makes the EH do that several times in The Nutcracker). The same occurs with low B-flat to low C. Low B-flat to low B (or vice versa) is really mean to do. (It's slightly easier to do low B-flat to low B, as we can put our finger on both keys and just pivot the finger to get off the low B-flat key, but it's still not nice ... and NEVER ask us to do that several times in a row!)

If you had a fingering chart you could see that our pinkies have a lot of keys ... that's when things can get tricky. But rarely have I found a composer gives me something absolutely impossible. (But yes, it happens.)

For amateur players, I'm going to guess anything below about a D and above the high D will be ... well ... perhaps less than pleasant sounding. Depends on the player! There are some extremely fine amateur oboists, so one can also keep that in mind!

Pitch and dynamic range are a big issues with some amateurs, ... I suggest you don't write unisons! It's just a bad idea. I LOVE unison oboe when it's in the mid-range, but you're really asking for it unless you have very good players.

I think the biggest thing to understand about oboe is the attack issue. My students are taught early on not to "note test" because we are ALL so tempted to do that. Once we get started we are just fine. It's the darn attack that scares us. After all, we are working with two skinny pieces of wood that we have to cajole into vibrating! (WHO thought of this crazy instrument?!)

DJW: When you write that, after the attack, "once we get started we are just fine," how long can an oboist really continue playing? Breathing and endurance for the oboe are completely different from the other winds: when they end a long passage, they're gasping for breath, but oboists often end by having to exhale a mouthful of air held under pressure. Historical examples don't help much on this topic: there is baroque music in which the oboe has to play continuously and more recent music in which the oboe is used more discretely. So, without resorting circular breathing a la Josef Marx, how long is too long?

PM:You're right. We don't run out of oxygen ... we run into carbon dioxide. It's a totally different problem than any other instrument. Of course how long we can keep going does depend upon the player, the reed, the oboe ... but take a deep breath and then blow it out between your teeth, hissing. How long can YOU go? That gives you some idea of how much air we can put through those darn reeds!

I can play very long phrases. Tchaik 4? I can do the solo in one breath if necessary, unless the tempo is far too slow.  (He can too.)  I've never run out of air when I've had solos, actually. Now if we have a lot of lengthy phrases eventually we start to get awfully tired because we not only are exhaling and inhaling when we play, but we occasionally need to relax our embouchure. So there's that as well.

But if you were ask for an exact time ... geesh, hard to say! I'll have to time myself. Mostly, I hate the tremendously long phrase not because of ME but because of my listeners. They get so distracted by our not breathing ... even going so far as to not breathe while they listen! In timing myself just now with a few long things ... 50 seconds works fine for me.

I would say "too long" is when it sounds like a gimmick, when some will resort to circular breathing (remember I can go longer than some), or when it makes everyone so distracted they forget to listen!

Clear as mud, eh?

DJW: Composers love to have oboist double English Horn, and sometimes switch between the two horns with some frequency. The reeds have got to be ready and the instruments don't like to be played completely cold inside, so what is a reasonable amount of time to leave for a switch during a piece?

PM: I've had to move from oboe to EH (or the other way 'round) so quickly I have to play while moving to the stand to pick up the next instrument (thank you Mr. Mahler). I like to have a few measures at least. If I have a huge EH solo I prefer not to have to start on it cold, after playing oboe (thank you Mr. Dvorak and Mr. Berlioz). Sometimes when the EH solos are so huge, I opt to have them hire a second oboist and just play the EH part. It depends on the work. (When we did Roman Carnival Overture and New World Symphony last year I did that.) So if you DO have a player switching, I say "Please think about us and let us play a few notes before a solo on the given instrument!" But of course so many past composers didn't care about that. Go figure.

DJW: In addition to the English Horn, there is an increasing interest among composers in the "other doubles": oboe d'amore, piccolo oboe, baritone oboe, heckelphone. Are these so rare that composers should save them for commissions from players who own the instruments and specialize in them, or are players in general taking a greater interest in them with instruments available for lease when needed, or should we forget about them because oboists or concert organizers will see the names of the instruments and immediately strike the piece from the program?

PM: Oboe/EH double is expected. With the others composers need to realize that some will have to rent the instrument. Most of us are happy to do so because of the extra $$. (Where I work the first double pays 25% more, the second and all following adds another 10%.) I've never even heard of a piccolo oboe being played. Can't imagine where one would get that! D'amore and baritone oboe are rentable around here. Heckelphone would probably require an owner, so then you run into trouble. At least here. Some orchestras look at things like this and nix 'em because of the extra cost (some orchestras would have to rent them for the player). It really depends on the group.

DJW: Although some instructions are now well established, like fluttertongue, and I can always look up possible trills in reference books, I'm a bit intimidated about writing "special effects" for an instrument which I don't play myself. When it comes to composing for the oboe, it's alternative fingerings, microtones, glissandi, and multiphonics which seem to vary wildly from instrument to instrument and player to player that seem most difficult. Some composers go ahead and specify fingering or playing modes in detail, others are more impressionistic in their instructions. What is a good — meaning robust — middle path for composers to use?

PM: I played Berio's Sequenza for oboe eons ago. At the time I owned a Loree. Many of the fingerings didn't work for me; they were based on Holliger's oboe, which wasn't a Loree (I can't remember if it was a Marigaux or a Rigotaut, but it was one of those two). So yes, so much varies from instrument to instrument. And reed to reed, as well. I had to find more flexible reeds than I was using at the time to get some sounds. I'm sure I was off on others.

This is a topic I'm not sure I'm capable of answering well; I seldom do these techniques.

I CAN tell you pitch bending is pretty much a breeze. Glissandi are not because, unlike clarinet, we don't have open hole keys any longer. Some can do it; I can't. I also can't fluttertongue, as much as I've tried (we actually don't flutter the tongue; we "gargle" instead), nor can I double tongue (sigh ... it's the reason I can't audition any longer for orchestras!).

I guess I mostly prefer to get a composer's opinion about what he/she wants and I try to satisfy it. Fingerings can be given as suggestions, but as you know they don't always work!

DJW: You mentioned muting before. Is this something composers should pay attention to, or is this something that should be reserved to players discretion, to help with balancing dynamics?

PM: I've never seen a composer request that we do that. I only do it to make it less stressful to play pianissimo low notes. But if a composer wanted something muted that would be fine with me. Of course muting higher notes doesn't really help, since our sound comes primarily through they first open keys. With higher notes the open keys are toward the top of the instrument, so our sound is coming out there.

DJW: What special attribute or feature does the oboe have that you would like to bring to the attention of composers? Is there something we overuse or underuse or, maybe, some trade secret we ought to know about to help make better music for oboe?

PM: Hmmm. I'm not sure about this one. It does seem like composers have us labeled as the "make 'em cry" instrument ... but I love to do that so it works for me!

I'll have to think on this one a bit. I'm usually fairly happy with what I get ... although some contemporary composers write either ridiculously impossible or ridiculously easy stuff. (Funny how that goes!)

I HATE HATE HATE the composer whose computer played the rhythmically impossible stuff perfectly and is baffled when we aren't like a computer. And I go crazy, too, when I can tell the composer plays piano and does stuff that is so easy on piano and hard on oboe. (Like having us do an large interval over and over very quickly. Sure, we can do that on piano ... but oboe is a bit trickier!)

DJW: Piano playing may often give a composer a false sense about articulations on other instruments. There are raging debates among composers about how much to notate and while I'm mostly on the under-notate side of the debate, I believe that there are some articulations, particularly slurs, that are often essential for players. From your experience, what markings do we omit or commit too often?

PM: If you want something articulated a certain way, it is essential that it's notated! I play exactly what a composer writes. I didn't even realize some would leave out articulations. It's not like strings where, with their bowings, articulations are then added. We see it, we play it. We don't see it, we don't. The only time that rule is broken is with pop music, since it's often notated oddly in any case.

DJW: Thank you! This should be a lot of help!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Favorite Topics: Erickson

I avoid recordings, but sometimes I can't resist:  here's a newish recording of Robert Erickson's East of the Beach, in many ways typical of his later works, in the use of favorite topics or textures: an opening droning section,  a more melodic central section (here, very nicely, the melodies, in a kind of fake counterpoint of simultaneous variation — a favorite west coast style, used by Erickson, Harrison, Leedy, and many others — are nicely orchestrated with the melodic material carried by the strings and the winds providing the background continuity by sustaining tones grabbed from the melodies) and finally a cheerful hocketing section.   The title is very nice, too, especially as Erickson lived on the west coast, so that East in the title is the direction inland, not towards the water, and the piece does, appropriately, get more built-up and populated as it goes on.

If you don't know Charles Shere's book about Erickson and his music, Thinking Sound Music, you should.  Also, this article on the late music ( online here) by John MacKay is very much worth reading.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The trajectory as signature

I'm sure that not the only one who will drop everything in order to read a just-published novel by Thomas Pynchon.   The latest is Inherent Vice, a weird noir set in L.A. in the Spring of 1970. As soon as the book was opened — and to the great frustration of a family who wanted a little attention —  nothing of importance got done until it was read, word for word, straight, from cover to cover.  There is no other writer who can do this to me, and I can now count at least a half-dozen weekends lost to a new Pynchon, and at least twice that many lost to re-reads.   My admiration for the author's technical skills and imagination is unbounded, and the pleasure in the cool but caring voice of Pynchon's narrators (who regularly allow us to forget the distincton  between the ridiculous and the sublime*),  equally so, but explaining how he is able to do that is a critic's job, not mine.  So here I'll just note one feature of Pynchon's writing that has been a profound influence on my compositional thinking:  all of his novels begin in motion, with examples that would make any Calculus teacher proud of trajectories loaded with precisely the energy required to sustain the rest of each book.   Inherent Vice is typical:

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to.

The upward motion clearly sets things in play, and you know already that the book is going to be all about why she came up those stairs, and we already know some history ("the way she always used to") and, moveover, it is far from clear that the horizontal motion is forward motion, an important bit of information indeeed, for, as it turns out, very little in the book that follows will be straightforward.

Here are the opening trajectories of the other novels:

 Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norwich, Virginia. (V)

The arbitrary nature of Profane's journey is carried through in the novel in which every locale chosen seems equally happenstance; in V. even events of great circumstance are passed through rather than experienced.

ONE summer afternoon, Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party... (The Crying of Lot 49

What does it mean to come home from a Tupperware party?  Nothing less that a return to a life far less banal and ordinary. 

A screaming comes across the sky. (Gravity's Rainbow)

The path of the rocket, is everywhere mirrored in this book:  in the title, in the pattern's of Tyrone Slothrop's sexual excitement, and in the reading difficulty curve of the book itself. 

LATER than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake... (Vineland)

The novel Vineland itself does nothing but drift, with all of the characters awakening into a much more sober era.  

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs,... (Mason & Dixon)

Which is almost a parody of the opening of Gravity's Rainbow, with apparently gentle snowflakes in place of rockets.

And, of course, in the immediate predecessor to Inherent Vice, Against the Day, the Chums of Chance in their airship launch, in naive good spirits, with: 

..."Up we go!"... (Against the Day)

In technical terms, this is not a particularly complex way of setting a novel in progress, but when you get it right, it is inherently powerful.  In many ways, it's like the signature or motto opening of many classical works or the hook of popular music, but Pynchon never allows his signatures to only be hooks upon which events are strung along.  Rather more like a seed, these have genetic material which implies a history and suggests a future path, and Pynchon makes it clear that the scenario initially implied need not be satisfied and thus, in every moment, "the" future is continuously being recalculated or reset, and every variable may vary.  Thus, the environmental influences on the development of the seed are considerable, indeed they combine with the unpredictable dynamism to provide the interest which allows a tiny initial idea to be sustained far beyond any exhaustion in its inherent interest.   Moreover, as readers are always aware of the finite dimensions of the book as whole, we are prepared to pay attention to and take measure of the forces which will inevitably halt the trajectory, whether in a crash or a gentle landing or just a drift away.  


* If you just want a taste of Pynchon, I suggest first the episode with Byron the Bulb, the ultimate resistor (or that little light which is going to shine, all the time) in Gravity's Rainbow, then, if you are strong enough, chapter nine, set in German Southwest Africa, of V.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Melodica!*, the first international online anthology of new music for melodica is now open for visits, via a provisional title page,  here.  The collection includes 17 18 works for melodica solo or ensemble by 12 13 composers, including: Jon Brenner, Stephen Chase,  Kieran Daly,  Paul A. Epstein, Graham Flett, Ben.Harper,  Aaron Hynds, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen,  Kondo Kohei, Nomura Makoto, Ushijima Akiko**.  There is considerable variety here, with a stylistic range from neo-classicism to minimalism, and from virtuoso use of extended techniques (I expect that Mr Flett's score, for example, will define the extended technical resources of the instrument for some time to come) to more conceptual/theatrical projects or  explorations of acoustic phenomena. 

This project is not yet closed to new contributors and some promised scores are, indeed, still outstanding, so check in at the site again in the future.  This has been a great experience: getting to know the work of some new colleagues as well as becoming familar with the history, technique and potential of an underappreciated instrument.  I hope that these pieces will have more exposure in the future and be widely played, that the melodica will receive more compositional attention and, not least of all, that this be a spur to more online collections of playable music for a diversity of resources, styles, techniques, and themes.  Being present, e.g. online, is a necessary first step to letting the world know about the liveliness, depth, and diversity of the new music.

Please also visit A Winter Album, an online collection of works for solo piano.  Contributions are still sought for A Spring Album, of percussion music.


* aka "melodica factorial". 

** I hope that I am excused for including two pieces of my own, the second of which was a late effort intended to make up for the absence of a late-50's/early-60's virtuoso serial bebop melodica piece, a bit of music history fiction along the lines of "what would it have been like if Severino Gazzelloni had played the melodica instead of the flute?"