What Sort of Classical Music Should I Write?

Should be it be Simply Attainable or Extremely Complex

An on going series of posts into what sort of composition is "good" classical music

Classical music is divided into a variety of different camps: New vs Established Masters, Innovative (or avant-gard) vs Accessible and Attainable vs Complex. There are people who are tired of listening to music of the "common practice period" and hunger for something new. Other's want music that create something new in terms of sound or technique while others are happy with trying new things using existing technique that "sounds" nice. Today I would like to talk about the difference between music that players can easily grasp and perform, and music that pushes the bounds of players ability.

These are not new topics; they have been argued by composers, performers and audience for hundreds of years and the conversation will likely continue. As a composer, these are questions I must wrestle with in order to find my own voice, to determine who I am as a composer!

I met a wonderful woman who has been writing music for young pianists for many years. She's published and earning a fair sum of money from it too. As such, she's a successful composer (IMHO). Her wee little pieces are elegant and delightful; they are truly wonderful. However, I could probably play many of them myself and I seriously doubt if any decent university would accept me as a Freshman pianist. I don't say this disparagingly, quite the opposite. I marvel at her skill in writing simple pieces that young musicians like to play that also are pleasant to listen to. Numerous times I've tried to write simple pieces and failed miserably.

On the other hand, Brian Ferneyhough and other composers of the "new complexity" write music in which there is too much information at any given moment for a performer to manage, so they need to make choices as to what elements they actually perform and what they just ignore. While there are elements of this music I really enjoy, a whole concert of this kind of music tends to wear on me.

So, where, as a composer, do I fit in the scope of complexity of musical material vs playability? Currently, I'm in the process of writing a piece entitled Flute Toys. The music is being written specifically for a professional flautist friend, Rachel Perez Tetrault, so I desire to make the music challenging enough for her. She recently performed Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Flute and Piano and I began by studying it as a basis of what she can accomplish on the flute. In addition, I am looking at Luciano Berio's Sequenza I, Andre Jolivet's 5 Incantations, Claude Debussy's Syrinx and Edgard Varese' Density 21.5. These are all vastly different pieces and all considered extreme in terms of flute technique. None of these pieces are simple and yet all of them have been performed. When it comes to a question of perform-ability, as long as I'm not doing anything outwith what they've done I'm safe. When I do incorporate the more difficult elements into my own writing, I create the possibility that perhaps one day my piece will be ranked among these masterworks for flute.

Another flautist friend speaks with me regularly about Flute Toys. She tries to keep me sane, and insists I not go too far off the deep end in terms of complexity. My "style" is nowhere near as complex as Ferneyhough's, but the music is intense, with some extremely difficult passages. This means what I'm writing isn't going to be playable by most students. I'm ok with that. I'm not trying to write student practice pieces. Maybe if I did I'd earn a better living... but that's not where my interest lies.

Several of my composition instructors have chided me for writing rhythms that I can't readily clap myself, but my response is Ferneyhough & Carter both write extremely difficult rhythms that, at times, need to be mathematically calculated to figure out just what the rhythms actually are. I don't believe a composer needs to be able to play what they write, only have an understanding that what they have written is playable (big difference).

While I agree with their comment "You are no Ferneyhough," I have to start being Chip Michael at some point. So, my rhythms are occasionally tough, but nothing more than what you might find in a percussion piece where you'd expect the musician to be well versed in rhythm. Plus, I'm not a good flautist, so what... I shouldn't write anything I can't play myself? Of course not! If composers stuck to that rule, Bartok never would have written his very demanding Concerto for Orchestra, as he wasn't a virtuoso performer on every instrument in the orchestra. Bartok understood the limits of the instruments, as did Stravinsky whose flute parts reach into the stratosphere. Orchestration books say we should avoid those extremes, and yet it's ok for Stravinsky? It seems to me, that part of creating compositions that live outside of their own time is the judicious flaunting of the rules; finding a way to push the boundaries and expand the capabilities of musicians.

There is something to be said for making a piece accessible for the performer playing the music. Recently the third movement of my Trumpet Concerto was performed. The trumpeter is an outstanding performer and yet some of the elements were just a bit beyond her. I use the full range of the piccolo trumpet and the movement lasts for 11 minutes. I didn't design the piece to be easy or even moderate. I wanted the piece to be played by the best in the business; a piece to show off virtuosic skills. In that regard, the piece is successful. The performance was successful too, even though some of the more challenging bits were "simplified." So, does this mean I should have written it in it's simplified version? I think not. I like how challenging it is. However, I'm willing for performers who want to attempt my music to make their own adjustments if necessary. Someday, a trumpet player is going to come along and play the music I've written. When they do, I believe the complexity will be justified.

In yet another instance, my violin fantasy based on Massenet's opera Manon is being considered by a couple of violinists. The original violinist who asked me to write the piece requested I study the Carmen Fantasy by Franz Waxman. Many of the rapid passages in my fantasy are very similar to those by Waxman. I also looked to other virtuoso violin music for examples: ideas for what is and isn't possible on the violin. (I was astounded at how difficult the music really could be and still considered playable). In the original request was a section of double-stopped harmonics because she's particularly good at them and they aren't something everyone can do. However, one of the other violinists has requested I simplify this section. His comment was, "Because we rarely see consecutive double-stopped harmonic passages, most violinists aren't good at it..." Fair enough! I re-wrote the section and took out the double-stopped harmonics.

My point is, what I want to write is professional level music, music that challenges the best musicians out there. There are numerous pieces out there which do the same thing. It is these pieces that outstanding student musicians strive to learn, because they are considered the pinnacle of the repertoire. For violinists, the Waxman Carmen Fantasy is theirs. For flutists, it is the Poulenc Sonata for Flute and Piano This may put some students and musicians off of playing my music. But, for those looking for a real challenge, who want to be in the top of their profession, my pieces will be just the ticket.


Jess Albertine said…
The Poulenc is played regularly by students. It's considered a standard recital piece for upperclassmen and graduate flutists (at least here). It's very difficult, yes, but it's easier than the Ibert Concerto, Carnival of Venice, and especially the Rodrigo Concerto. Those are the pinnacles of difficulty.

Anyway, I'm going to revise my final paper from post-tonal theory to post on here, since it dealt with the concept of accessibility and (my term) listenability in post-tonal music. It was theory-heavy, of course, but it can easily be changed to be more conceptual. I'll respond more specifically to your post in there.
Chip Michael said…
Obviously there are some more pieces I need to study!...

So, Jess, you've looked at my pieces, how would you rate it in terms of play-ability? Am I any where close to my target of a demanding show piece?
Anne said…
HI Chip - depends on your motivation. If you want more pianists to play it - or more people to hear it? I'm choosing pieces that aren't difficult to study so I can play them soon - to regular audiences - and embed them among more familiar music (of dead composers) - and then introduce the composer. http://www.pianoguitar.com
Chip Michael said…
Interesting point, Anne.

I guess my motivation (right now) is to try and write something technically demanding and yet still melodic (i.e., listenable).

Ultimately I want to write for symphony orchestras and (professional ones at least) don't tend to play new music that hasn't something technically challenging about it.

--- Note about your website... particularly liked some of your videos.

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