This evening’s adventure in internal struggle:
I’m at the finishing stages of a choral piece, a setting of two texts by the incomparable Federico Garcia Lorca. The piece itself is written, the notes and lyrics are into the notation program. For me, the last stage is to add and finalize the dynamics, articulations, and other expressive markings in the score – I call this “painting” the score (because it adds color to the music – get it???)
Lots of composers put this portion of the process nearer the beginning of the compositional timeline; I’ve never been able to, for a few reasons. Chiefly, when my music is freshly written, I don’t frankly know what the character of it is right away, save for general dichotomies like “loud/soft” or “quick/slow”. More to the point here, though, is the second problem: I can never decide what to paint with. Every dynamic and articulation is a choice. Some are bigger than others, obviously, but every one affects the music. The ones I really struggle with don’t just stop at the music; they can affect a composer’s relationship to the performer.
Consider the following excerpt from the first movement of this choral piece, a short tenor solo:
The text translates to “I step naked out into the street.” Once you get your inner 9-year-old under control, think about that line for a second. There are thousands of ways to interpret it, but I’ve chosen to see it as a confession of vulnerability by the narrator; he is a lonely, exposed soul about to venture into the anonymity of the street. A stranger in a strange land.
Great. Now how to convey that musically? The notes, I hope, are the right ones – now what? Well, I can leave it as is, with no markings other than its attached mf:
This option is the most bare-bones, obviously. It doesn’t offer much information to help the performer interpret it correctly. Then again, that can be a plus – this soloist has creative freedom, he can exercise his own (or the conductor’s) judgment and perhaps discover something about this line that I haven’t been able to yet.
The line is dynamically limiting, though, so the chance that he’s going to take such liberties on a whim is pretty slim. I could add an indication to help him along, what’s known in the biz as a “character marking.” For the moment, I choose something generic and nondescript, like:
Espressivo. Better. The soloist has an indication, signed by me, that he’s free to let the line breathe a little – to express himself, as it were. It doesn’t prescribe a lot, though, and can be unpredictable. In fact, a whole school’s worth of composition teachers think I’ve already messed up: if I want this line to breathe dynamically, I should use hairpins and extra markings to show the performer how. My answer: where’s the fun in that? I want the performer to have some creative input, be a partner in the process (albeit indirectly), not a hired hand.
Besides, the things I’m trying to convey aren’t the musical ins and outs alone. There’s an x-factor of emotional content, a theatrical and interpretive drive, that I want to draw out of my singer. The text is the main helper for this task, but maybe it’s not enough. Then again, maybe neither is a simple “espressivo” character marking. If I want to get the right sound out of this line, one might say, I need to prescribe even more what it is that I’m looking for. So let’s do that:
My indication isn’t a passive component anymore; it’s an active command. The singer is becoming the narrator. He is lonely, and all the other emotions that that word carries with it. Vulnerable? Maybe. Melancholy? Perhaps. Longing for something or someone? He certainly could be. The emotional can of worms has been opened with the addition of this one marking. Now we’re talking.
But the problem is this: I’m no longer making my performer or conductor a part of the creative process in the same way. When there were fewer markings, or less descriptive ones, I was simply advising my tenor soloist of his musical surroundings and trusting him to make intelligent decisions about the interpretation. Here, I’m telling him how he feels about the text. I’m telling him what his character is feeling at that moment, and saying “go do that.” It’s possible that’s what my soloist needs to really understand what I want; but it’s also possible that I’ll limit him and his drive to invent with this line, and we’ll both miss out on a great new possibility that could change the line or even change the piece. I’m the micromanaging film director who may draw the best out of his actors with his nitpicking or may cause them to shut down and lose a day of shooting.
So these character markings, these extra paints that I add to the music, aren’t just about the music. Every one of them is a statement on trust, one way or the other. They are measurements of how much expressive work you expect your performers to take on. Less is not more, and more is not better; but every marking is a choice. And every choice has a consequence. I still haven’t decided on which of these three options I’ll end up using. This is a question with no easy answer, and as soon as I nail down the “right one” a similar instance waits right behind. We’ll see what happens.