Musical Mind-Reading

Nov 26, 2012

by Eleanor Aversa, 2013 Composer-Not-in-Residence.

Eleanor-Aversa-SFCA-Composer-in-ResidenceFor me, the biggest challenge in writing for a group on the opposite coast is how to convey my vision for a piece: sure, I can sing to Magen over the phone, but mostly my means of communication is purely written notation. This brings up one of the biggest issues in modern music: just how much of the interpretation of a composer’s music is self-evident, and how much must the composer spell out?

We modern composers are trained to be very specific in our performance directions. Almost no one writes simply “Andante” anymore; we write “Andante, quarter note = 70” (70 beats per minute). I believe the practice has grown out of the philosophy that new music is meant to be so ground-breaking that traditional ways of performance no longer apply, and that the instincts developed in performers through years of playing “traditional” music must therefore be overridden. In fact, I’ve worked with some groups specializing in new music −superb, conservatory-trained musicians!− who will not taper off at the ends of phrases unless I write such directions in the score. This ultra-faithful (ultra-rigid?) adherence to written notation is such accepted practice for new pieces that I have seen many scores in which the composer actually includes a note to the effect of, “please play this piece as you would play music of earlier eras.”

While writing my first commission for SFCA, I’d been listening to the group’s CDs. Certainly the music “breathed:” the phrases had a pleasing arc to them, and there were those subtle changes of dynamics and tempo that create artful interpretation. But without the opportunity to attend rehearsals, it was impossible to know to which of these elements were specified in the score, which were the result of Magen’s artistic direction, and which were thanks to the spontaneous musical instincts of the singers themselves.

And so, in writing The Darkling Thrush (to be premiered next week), I admit I did the “modern composer” thing and liberally sprinkled the score with performance directions. A few weeks after I had delivered the manuscript, and Magen had had a chance to study it, we discussed the piece over the phone. By singing certain phrases back and forth, we determined that almost all of what I had tried to convey by notation was akin to what she would have done anyway.

Now, as I work on the piece for the March concert, I’m excited to leave much more open to interpretation, knowing I can depend on Magen and the singers to understand what I have in mind and to shape the music with sensitivity. As Magen pointed out, “If a choir is not musical enough to pick up on these interpretive things, they shouldn’t be doing your music.” And for those elements that I fail to communicate, for the times they do not read my mind, there is always the phone…

written by Eleanor Aversa, SFCA’s 2013 Composer-Not-in-Residence