Yearly Archives: 2013

On Dynamics

Dynamics are really a blunt set of tools composers have to shape and shade what is supposed to be the most ethereal of art forms.  Most of us regularly use about eight markings: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, and fff.  Brahms made a valiant effort with pf (poco forte) but it never really caught on.  Tchaikovsky made a valiant effort with fffff but now we’re all deaf.

Schoenberg had a great idea with marking lines “Hauptstimme” (main voice) and “Nebenstimme” (next voice), but the whole thing becomes too confusing when try you combine those with the traditionally notated dynamic markings on the page.

Poco forte, btw, is softer than mezzo forte. (I find that most musicians don’t know this.)

A composer has to figure out: at what overall dynamic level should the ensemble should sound? How prominently should x instrument sound within that texture? What effect will the natural acoustic properties of said instrument have in determining its volume? Should that even be taken into account, or should we just go for pure dynamics? Based on the entire history of the literature for their instrument, how are players of x instrument likely to interpret y dynamic?

Jennifer Higdon seems to have this whole thing figured out.

Tchaikovsky was really pretty bad at dynamics overall. Most of the phrasing inherent in his music is in no wise notated by the dynamics (though he did get a lot better at this as he progressed.) I just conducted the 2nd symphony, a charming piece with very sloppy dynamics. Let’s not even talk about the meters.

One of my first composition teachers told me that he would complete an entire piece and then go back and insert the dynamics.  This still boggles my mind.  Go back and refine dynamics, yes, I usually do that about 50 times.  But insert?  Interestingly, he believed wholeheartedly that “dynamics really make or break a piece.”

I just conducted Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem”.  I think the old man spent about 30 minutes TOTAL marking the dynamics.  Choral basses, stating the theme of a fugue are marked p with trombones and timpani marked f.  This is symptomatic of this piece, which feels hastily assembled and lumpily misproportioned.  There are some great passages though.

Schumann is so often criticized for his orchestration.  I came of age believing that old lie, and now I’ve totally rejected it.  Yes, there’s a lot of balance problems, but most of those occur because he wrote in block dynamics (like… just about every other composer at that time.)  Get a decent bunch of musicians together and they can usually figure out what’s going on with their parts.  Unlike Tchaikovsky, at least the blocks are correctly dynamicized.

When you’ve got, say, woodwinds playing a chord f and you bring in the trombones mf, how will they know what to do in comparison?  Should you write them a little note?


Harps should always be marked f (and doubled or even tripled – what can I say, I just love the harp!)

I would much rather

listen to a short piece of music in which every moment has been crafted by the composer to add to the overall narrative/design/emotional content of the piece, rather than a long piece interlarded with “filler” used to pad the dimensions of the piece with pretensions towards grandiosity/seriousness/weight.

Shostakovich, I am looking squarely in your direction.  Lili Boulanger, je t’adore, girl.


An e-mail appeared this morning from my friend Dash:

Ahoy there Will,

In an act of Schnittkey solidarity, I thought I might forward on a painting I commissioned from my brother of our mutual musical hero. It’s of the fine-street-art persuasion. Attached.

I hope you like it!


Einsicht” from The Commissar

Dash’s brother turns out to be a wildly impressive multi-media artist, and you should totally check out the rest of his work here: Hunter Nesbitt.  If you ask him nicely (as have I), he may even make you a reproduction of the above piece.

Post script: Have you ever heard of two brothers with better names than Hunter and Dashiell?

«in vain»

Here’s the (strangely unlisted) video that got me going down this rabbit hole:

“Most of it sounds like simply nothing else at all,” quoth Sir Simon.  Now my curiosity was piqued.  Could this Haas fellow truly have created such a novelty?  Such statement must compel me (and all other snobs musicals) to find in every note, chord, and phrase an exact sonic equivalent somewhere else.  Listening to this piece would be a challenge.

Lo and behold, that challenge turned to joy.  Yes, this music does have notable influences: as Sir Simon mentioned, many tendencies in late Ligeti are distilled here, and there is Scelsi, and perhaps Ben Johnston, and certainly his fellow “Spectralist”* Gérard Grisey.  But so what?  In the end, this is fabulous music and in its combination of and expansion upon these various influences, it transcends them.  Perhaps that’s what Sir Simon was getting at, but of course, one must be a cheeky literalist bitch and call such things out.

*[I’ve been totally meaning to “get into” Spectralism for a while now, and it turns out I did it and didn’t even know it!]

Herr Haas himself

As SS says, this piece is indeed an hour long.  I’ve listened to it five times now straight through, and it’s held my rapt attention on each occasion.  I usually end up playing FLOW on my iphone even during Downton Abbey, the most entertaining show ever to exist, so that’s saying something.  You can listen to it on Spotify, hear it on YouTube, buy it on iTunes or best yet, watch it on the Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall.  That way you get to see (rather, experience) the musicians playing in the dark.  Speaking of which: how they be playing all this shit in the dark??  Color me impressed!

Saith Alex Ross, rather more eloquently:

At the climax, all these shimmering fragments are derived from a fundamental C, meaning that the music accumulates a glorious sheen, like a new dawn of tonality. Repeated gong strokes add to the sense of elemental ritual. A revelation is at hand. But it all goes awry: notes bend from their “natural” paths, the lights come back up, the frantically scurrying figures return, and, after several herky-jerky accelerations and decelerations, the music abruptly switches off. And you finally understand the title: a new kind of beauty seems ready to come into the world, but in the light of day it falters, and we end up back where we started.

I didn’t act on Alex Ross’s words in 2011, but I exhort you to heed mine now: listen to this music!!  It is totally baller!!