Technique versus Expression in New Music

by Nathan Cornelius    

I recently finished composing a piece that represents a new style for me. In the process of notating this piece, I became uncomfortably aware of some concerns I have about new music and its relationship to performers and the audience, which I’d like to share in this post.

Thus far in my brief career as a composer, most of my music had focused on the notes, with either tonal or atonal pitch structures providing the backbone of the piece. This new piece focused more on sounds, with the piece structured in a very abstract way around different categories of timbres and sound qualities. To achieve as wide a palette of sound colors as possible, I used special techniques for the various instruments to a much greater extent than I had before, asking the cellist to bow on muted strings, the trumpet player to slap the mouthpiece with her hand, the pianist to scrape the strings with a credit card, and similar effects.

As I typed the piece into my music notation software, I quickly began to fill up the “Technique Terms” category with directions for these techniques. By the time I finished, I had defined over 90 different technical instructions for the various performers to observe. I clicked over to the next category in my software, “Expressive Text.” For the same score, I had created a total of four expressive terms, two of which were just the Italian words possibile (as much as possible) and sempre (always). For comparison, I pulled up the file for the last piece I had composed, in which I had felt much more familiar with the style I was working in. In that piece, I had created five technical instructions—and 23 expressive ones. I wondered if my exploration of new compositional techniques was causing me to lose sight of my larger goal of sharing a state of mind and heart with my performers and my audience.

As a performer, I know only too well that it’s difficult to play with expressive intent when your technical capabilities are being stretched to the limit. When we’re secure and confident on what we’re playing, we feel free to emote, but when things get hard, we hunker down and hope to just hit the right notes. Any musical expression that happens to occur in a difficult passage is an extra bonus. Or so we think. But from an audience’s perspective, the performer’s expressive gestures, both musical and physical, are a must at all times. People don’t pay twenty dollars for a concert ticket to hear technically proficient robots display their prowess; they want to see and hear other human beings share an authentic, whole-hearted musical experience.  This experience is not just communicated aurally; I believe the performers’ stage demeanor makes a huge difference for the audience. If the performers appear to be at ease and enjoying themselves, the audience’s perception of the music is far more positive than it would be based on the sound alone.

Is it any wonder, then, that performances of new music often feel detached and cold to those who attend? Not only are composers often writing difficult music to begin with, the performers feel more out of their depth if they have to execute any techniques unfamiliar to them. Again, I know the sensation of abject terror upon receiving a new score filled with techniques that even I had never tried on my instrument. Of course, new-music performers today often rise to the technical challenges of their repertoire with admirable aplomb. However, it is rarer to hear a performer, having mastered the special techniques, then perform the piece with the same freedom and focus that we often call musical expressivity.

Are composers to blame for this? Should they refrain from writing music that pushes the existing boundaries of vocal or instrumental technique? Does music necessarily even need to have an emotional component to be good? I don’t think so. Like many composers, I feel a need to stretch the possibilities of what sounds performers make and audiences hear. Perhaps we composers can at least be mindful of when we are stretching our own compositional technique so far that we have difficulty acting expressively at the same time. In that dangerous yet exhilarating place, we have the opportunity to take a creative leap of faith, attempting the same fusion of craft and feeling in our own work that we expect of performers in theirs.

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