Letting go: Let your music ‘be’
Do you have a favourite piece, or pieces, of music? Most people tend to. What about a favourite recording of said piece? It will most likely feature a specific group or ensemble, a particular arrangement, or your favourite conductor. One example of mine is In The Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt, by Grieg. I don’t have one particular favourite performance, but can’t stand it when the accell. is taken too slowly!
When it comes to my own music, I’ve always been a strong believer in ensuring performers feel free to interpret my music as they want. I think this belief stems from my performing roots, and hating being ‘controlled’ too much by sheet music. I used to be a fan of music without too many markings on it, that meant I could create my own version of it. It was even more interesting when a peer was studying or performing the same piece and we could compare our different approaches.
It therefore came quite naturally to not put too many markings on the score when it comes to expression and articulation. I believe it’s important to convey to the performer the essence you want to capture, whilst at the same time giving them enough freedom to put their own interpretation on it. Obviously this is a hard line to walk, and scores can end up going one way or the other, but ultimately this is what I aim to achieve.
My life’s been a bit mad for the last month and a half, owing to moving house and the arrival of my daughter Isabelle. While this meant a lull in my writing (hence no blogs – although I have mentally generated plenty of ideas for both blogs and pieces!). However, during this period, two of my pieces were played through: Ori (for electric violin, bass clarinet, piano and electronic) was rehearsed and performed as part of Colchester New Music’s New Music Day, and Quintuple (for brass quintet) was rehearsed for a concert. Sadly the concert itself was cancelled, but the piece was rehearsed and recorded. I was unable to be at either occasion, but thanks to Stuart Russell and Caitlin Rowley I have recordings of both.
As I wasn’t there, I obviously wasn’t able to input anything other than the markings on the score. In the case of Ori I had discussed the parts with a couple of the performers, but I hadn’t had this opportunity with Quintuple. Either way, when it came to the rehearsals of both pieces, I was unable to be there in the way that many composers often are – hovering, having discussions with the musicians, in a process which often results in a little of the composer’s mental image of the piece that’s been left off of the score being imposed upon the performers.
Quintuple is quite a traditionally scored piece, and thus it was quite easy to compare the rehearsal recording to my auralisation of the piece.
What particularly interested me about the interpretation of this piece was how the performers built the piece up as it was performed. Although the piece was designed to build throughout (until a minute or so from the end), in the recording it seems as if two elements above and beyond those in the score had been used to enhance this build up: tempo (slightly below the specified tempo at the beginning, but up to speed at the end – barely perceptible however!), and an element I find hard to describe – passion, perhaps, or energy levels? It’s as if they aren’t playing with as much energy and zest at the beginning, but that it warms up as the piece goes on and finishes.
Of course, there’s a chance this ‘interpretation’ could have arisen because it was the first rehearsal for the whole ensemble, and because of the element of unknown when you first embark on rehearsing a piece together. Regardless of the precise reason for the interpretation, however, I still found it very interesting.
Ori is a different type of piece altogether, in that it includes playback of recorded material from earlier in the piece – some synchronised, but some non-synched. Consequently I had no firm mental image of sections of the piece, making it much more exciting (and nervewracking!) to listen to.
However, any apprehension I had melted away after hearing the first few bars of a piece. It’s wonderful when an interpretation of your music is above and beyond what you thought of, and seems to enhance it – which is the precise atmosphere I felt hearing the beginning of the recording. It’s interesting to ponder whether this was suggested by the directions on the score, or whether this atmosphere was innately felt by the performers when they came to read and rehearse the music.
With both pieces, listening to the dynamic levels was something I found interesting. I find that dynamic levels are always something that will be interpreted differently by different individuals, and these two were no exception. It’s intriguing how a slightly different balance to the one you mentally hear can give the piece a slightly different atmosphere.
Being highly subject to intepretation, I’ve found the use of dynamics to be an issue of debate amongst composers. Many years ago, I was invited to have a piece performed and critiqued at the Park Lane Group’s Young Composer’s Symposium. When the panel were discussing the pieces, they pointed out the ‘lack’ of dynamics of my piece, and asked if I felt threatened by the fact the performer could do as she wanted with the piece. For one, there were dynamics on the piece – just as many as you’d find on a classical or romantic style piece of music! They thought it bizarre that I wasn’t conforming to the standard of plastering music with dynamics, and were surprised I felt comfortable surrendering that much ‘control’! This view baffles me – if you want to control your music to an inch of its life, why not have it performed by a machine rather than a real life performer?!
Allowing your music to live a life of its own can go in many ways. Ultimately, however, the performance of a piece is a collaboration between the composer (s ) and the performers (s ). The amount each party contributes to the mix varies depending on the music and individuals involved. From a composer’s point of view, allowing room for interpretation results in more freedom for the performers, and therefore the chance of a unique, personal performance every time. Definitely the kinds of performances I prefer!