Investigating the role that music notation software plays in the performance difficulty of a new piece of music.
Well, it seems that my regular weekly posts on "Sibelius Composition" has once again been hit by the tardiness bug. However, better late than never, right? This week, I would like to open up a discussion on the role that music notation software MAY have in increasing the performance difficulty of new compositions. I say "may," because in all honesty I'm not 100% sure that this is an issue that stems directly from the notation software itself.
Let's set the record straight: new compositions labeled "difficult" by performers is not new. We all know the story of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, which was considered so excruciatingly difficult at the time it was composed that Mozart himself claimed that it was a "joke," to see just how far he could push the instrument. Today, it is the most widely performed concerto in clarinet literature. Throughout the 20th century, compositions of a wide variety of difficulty (ranging from "mildly challenging" to "WTF! FML! HOW DO I PLAY THIS??!?!?") have been created both by hand and within the computer, all with varying degrees of success and/or failure. I myself have often been accused of writing music that was "too difficult," but often the end result is still very satisfying for both the performer and the audience alike.
Some of the more overt reasons for this increase in difficulty have to do with the composer's desire to expand what is considered "possible" by musical instruments. This exploration of "extended techniques" (as they are often referred to) frequently leads to new compositions that, on the surface, seem to ask the impossible of the performer. Sometimes - they are impossible. Other times, however, what appears to be un-performable turns out to be quite workable after the performer spends considerable time practicing the new technique.
Of course, this issue of difficulty presented above has NOTHING to do with music notation software. In fact, on some levels the exploration of extended techniques has been minimized as a direct result of composing on the computer. The limitations of the software often make the prospect of developing (or even recreating) an extended technique daunting, due to the notational challenges inherent in asking the player to do something that isn't standard. This is a bad practice on the part of the composer. Composers should NEVER feel chained by the program, nor should the composer ever choose not to explore an extended technique simply because he or she can't figure out how to get the program to notate it. The decision making process must remain in the mind of the composer - not the software. (Incidentally, I am reminded at this point of many arguments that I have had in the past as to whether Finale or Sibelius can handle extended notation better. Suffice it to say, I strongly believe that BOTH programs can handle these notational challenges given enough patience, creativity, and Tylenol.)
But, I digress. Getting back to the topic at hand - the main area of difficulty that can be directly attributed to music notation software isn't one of timbre, but rather of RHYTHM. The bottom line is that it is incredibly easy - perhaps too easy - to create complex rhythms that, while completely performable by MIDI playback, are next to impossible to perform by a living musician. Complex syncopations, rhythmically intricate counterpoint, nested tuplets/quintuplets/septuplets/etc., and constantly shifting meters and metric patterns are all completely possible within music notation software. Sometimes, these rhythms occur completely by accident by the composer (usually due to the unintentional shifting of the musical material by one eighth or sixteenth note). Sometimes, they occur because the composer becomes attached to the vitality that these rhythms seem to present themselves when played PERFECTLY by the computer (with absolutely no tempo fluctuations whatsoever). Other times, these rhythms are EXACTLY what the composer wants, without any regard to the possible difficulty that such rhythms may present.
It IS arguable that many of these aforementioned techniques are in fact completely performable by those musicians who are used to counting these rhythms. In fact, I have been told on more than one occasion that the increase of these complex rhythms have actually contributed to the improvement of rhythmic understanding and virtuosity by a select group of outstanding musicians (often those who are new music specialists). As mentioned above with regards to timbre and the exploration of extended techniques, these are not unique to the world of music notation software. Many composers - Brian Ferneyhough for example - have been exploring extreme rhythmic languages completely outside of the world of music notation software.
Nonetheless, one cannot argue that the software does play its part, and that regardless of whether or not there ARE performers who can play this material, many cannot. So - what is the composer to do? If you view yourself as a "rhythmic pioneer" of sorts (such as Ferneyhough), you should change NOTHING. Keep writing complex rhythms, accept that the work is difficult, and seek out the best of the best to play your music (in many regards, I wish I could have that luxury!). If you are concerned about the level of difficulty your rhythms present, though, here are a few tips that may help you:
• Count out your rhythms as you write them. If you yourself have a difficult time accurately counting out your rhythm, it is quite possible that your performers will have that difficulty as well.
• When applicable, use standard terminology to assist in tempo changes, rather than using "written out" ritards and accelerandos. (i.e. Writing out rit. and accel. instead of using feathered beaming).
• Avoid combining multiple levels of rhythmic complexity (for example, layering in counterpoint two separate lines, both of which use nested tuplets AND syncopations).
• As mentioned in prior blog entries, avoid using "extreme" tempos - they won't sound nearly as good in practice as they do in the computer.
• Try not to add in "unnecessary" rhythmic variation. This is admittedly quite subjective, and will require a delicate touch on the composer's part to ensure that there is plenty of necessary rhythmic variation to keep the music interesting, and not a single note more!
• Remember that most performers will add in some "give and take" to their own rhythmic interpretation. Don't feel like you have to change up your rhythm because the computer playback's interpretation seems "stiff."
Of course, you may also choose to ignore all of the above and simply go for it! After all, the expansion of today's rhythmic language is part of what makes contemporary music exciting! Just...not necessarily easy.