I’ve had a few people ask me about my score markings lately. There are always questions that conductors and performers have about tempo markings, dynamics, and phrasing. I’m not offering this as some sort of justification for ignoring a composers wishes, but I want to explain my philosophy on the topic.
When I write a piece of music, I can conceive of more than one musically convincing way to convey it to an audience. I think most composers are like that. Unless there is a very specific gesture in my mind, I generally put in all my score markings last.
One time, I was playing for a choir at a Florida All State competition. A choir from a different school was performing one of my pieces in the contest. They noticed me in the audience. They proceeded to butcher my piece in front of prominent judges carefully cutting sinew from bone in a gruesome spectacle. When they were finished, the conductor turned in her bloody smock and acknowledged me as the composer. I thought, “That is not what I meant at all; that is not is at all.”
Around the same time, I had set myself a project to discover new harmonic vocabularies by limiting myself. I found a poem, and decided to write a piece using no accidentals. It was a big deal for someone who had spent time writing with tone-rows. I finished it and sent it to Jo-Michael Scheibe. He, in turn, gave it to my friend James Bass who conducted it for the recording. I sent it without any score markings at all. Now, I knew James from playing for him. I trusted James’s infallible musical instincts. So, I got the recording and then wrote in the dynamics from James’s choices. I don’t always use this method, but if there is a conductor that I trust, I have sometimes done the same thing.
From these two experiences – and a multitude of others – I realized something. Poor musicians may mutilate your music despite the markings. Great musicians will sometimes adjust the markings because of the hall or the size of the ensemble or any number of things. Poor musicians need the guidance. Great musicians are apt to ignore your markings and do whatever the hell they want.
So, when I am putting in markings, I mean them poetically. A forte or piano marking is contextual given the instrument or ensemble or hall at hand. Metronome markings are ideals that sometimes have to be adjusted based on the contingencies of the moment.
This does not mean that it is a “free for all”, and you can do whatever you want. It means that I am attempting to give you an emotional map using a traditional set of symbols. I am entrusting you to give a convincing musical performance in the context in which you find yourself.
Here is an example. This is the recording of the piece I mentioned above. James Bass’s musical instincts are such that he didn’t need guidance. He knew the emotional map without needing me to lay it out for him. The map is for people that don’t have the same gifts. Here is James conducting with no tempo or dynamic markings.