Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bothering with the Details

Hello again! I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to get this week's blog up on time, as the Fresno County Court system once again brought me in as a prospective juror. However, I must have said something to annoy one of the lawyers, as he very quickly dismissed me from the trial. Good news for all of us, as I now can continue with this week's blog entry.

I imagine that when many of us compose, we occasionally find ourself "in the zone," so to speak. In this state, the notes seem to effortlessly spill out of our mind, onto the computer screen, at a pace far faster than normal (whatever that pace may be...see last week's blog for more on this). I know that when this occurs to me, I end up feeling compelled to do whatever it takes to get the notes on the page - such as skipping past all of the "little things" to ensure that the notes are all there.

The little things in question, though, are often not so little.

These little things that I am referring to are details such as dynamics, articulations, phrase markings, expression markings, and tempos. In the heat of the moment, it is often easy to overlook these - after all, they simply aren't as sexy as the notes themselves. I know that in my own experience composing, I will occasionally discover that I've composed an entire phrase or two without placing these details, simply because I was overeager to get the notes themselves on the page. Unfortunately, I have found that this often ends up a compositionally fatal practice, leading to needless extra editing - or worse - complete rewrites. The notes that seemed to come out so effortlessly ended up lacking far more than the details; they also lacked musicality.

Music is, to put it bluntly, far more than notes. Music has expression. Music has character. The same string of notes and rhythms can be performed countless ways, in a variety of styles, moods, and interpretations. These qualities all depend on two things: one, the markings the composer chooses to provide, and two, how the performer chooses to interpret those markings.

When composing into Finale or Sibelius, the expediency and immediacy of note entry sometimes leads the composer to prioritize notes over the musical phrase. This shouldn't come as a surprise, as note entry is the first priority of the programs as well. Both Finale and Sibelius have a large variety of ways to input notes, ranging from point-and-click entry, to keyboard entry in real time, as well as several methods that fall somewhere in-between. The programs are designed to make note entry as easy as possible. This isn't a complaint - far from it, in fact - but rather simply a fact of how these program operate.

An unintended side effect of this is that the remaining details become "second-class citizens" within the program. In Finale, all of these details require the composer to access a separate tool (smart shapes, measure expressions, articulations, etc.) in order to point-and-click the detail into the score. In Sibelius, many of these details are handled by secondary numpad panels, or by typing them in using Command-E (for expressions) or Command-T (for techniques). Slurs and hairpins are likewise handled using their own hot keys. These are not difficult tasks, nor are they time consuming. However, they are all SECONDARY functions in relation to the prime function of note entry. This inevitably leads to the creation of compositions that can best be described as "notes, with a sprinkling of music here and there." This is especially evident in early student compositions, often when the student is already consumed with the creation and development of notes in the first place (with or without notation software!).

For me, I find that in those moments when I unintentionally focus entirely on the notes, I also unintentionally fail to understand the larger emotional quality of my music. Sure - I might have a "general concept" of whether the notes are fast, slow, loud, or soft - but I am often not considering whether those same notes are light, dark, violent, timid, lovely, or sorrowful. Notes alone cannot convey this, and without expressions, articulations, or dynamics to guide me I often have to formulate what those notes are supposed to be well after the creative moment has passed. This, as you might guess, can often lead to less-than-satisfactory results.

So, while it may not be the most expedient method of composing, I do recommend to my students (and anyone else who might ask!) that they input as many of the details as the music demands at the same time as note entry, rather than after the fact. Doing so helps the young composer learn that there is in fact a HUGE difference between a single whole note - naked, and a whole note that "crescendos over the entire length of the bar, from pianissimo to fortissimo, underneath the descriptive marking grotesque." One is a note - the other, for better or worse, is music.


(A brief aside)

To further press my point, allow me to present a portion of my blog entry now "without the details":

when composing into finale or sibelius the expediency and immediacy of note entry sometimes leads the composer to prioritize notes over the musical phrase this shouldnt come as a surprise as note entry is the first priority of the programs as well both finale and sibelius have a large variety of ways to input notes ranging from point and click entry to keyboard entry in real time as well as several methods that fall somewhere in between the programs are designed to make note entry as easy as possible this isnt a complaint far from it in fact but rather simply a fact of how these program operate

Not a pretty sight, eh?


As a final comment, I must give Sibelius a tremendous "high five" for introducing Magnetic Layout in Sibelius 6, a feature which I already have drooled over last week, and one which I must once again drool over this week. This simple-yet-brilliant feature finally allows the composer to focus completely on detail entry WITHOUT having to worry about collisions and score layout. Now, there are no more excuses to enter the details with the notes, as doing so is now just about as immediate and expedient.

So, now I turn this over to all of you reading. When do you find that you enter your details and markings? At the same time as the notes? After the fact?

Until next week then - that is, as long as I don't get called back to jury duty. After all, Fresno also has a federal court.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to add the little things after note input, just as you described it, to keep the "flow" when notes come to my mind easily. Exception: before using copy and paste I add stuff I know I would otherwise have to input in a much more tedious way.

    As much as I agree that adding slurs, articulations, expression text etc. cannot be underestimated when you want to ensure that the music in your head is played like music by someone else, I think that there is still a big difference between someone playing all details correctly and someony playing MUSIC. It is easier to tell that this is a wrong note or too long or too short than telling exactly what is wrong with some articulation. Pitch and duration, i.e. the information incorporated in the notes, is much more unambigious than, say, putting staccato dots on the notes. Articulation signs, for example, are a much less successful notation language than the notes themselves. So I'd summarise: taking care of the little things is utterly important, but don't expect too much.