Thursday, February 11, 2010

Details, details

"It looks very... brave," said my friend, referring to my recently completed pastorale-concerto for horn and strings, Northlands, which he'd just done me the favor of proof-reading. (I have a limited ability to see mistakes in my own work, so I send my orchestral scores to this eagle-eyed friend, who can look past what's there and divine through sheer observation of compositorial quirk what should be there. It's quite an amazing ability, really, one I wish I had.)

His comment struck me as a milder version of what I'd been thinking myself, staring at that score, which is that I'd completely, finally lost my mind. He was probably referring to the blatant stylistic schism that happens halfway through the piece, where long-held chromatic clusters and unrelieved tension in the string mass give way suddenly to pure, unadulterated D major, and a literal pop song for the soloist, later turning into straight-ahead, 8-bar G major pop progressions at the end. Although that was in part intentional, the two poles had started out being more blended. Over time, though, as these things tend to go and one sees the potential of the ideas evolve, the tonal material all ended up on one side of the central agogic divide of the piece, with the atonal stuff on the other. It's an odd piece that way, risky from my perspective, but one I think will ultimately work. I do admit that I'm curious as to how the final effect will be perceived: is the progression from one to the other organic, or will the rift turn out to be a jarring one? (I hope it's the former.)

Whatever courage may lie in that act of stylistic juxtaposition, my friend may also have been referring to the score's general lack of what's become one of the bugbears of contemporary compositional practice, a vague catch-all term I have yet to see conclusively defined, yet which seems to trip up many a well-intentioned composer when its absence is perceived by others: detail. I should probably admit that I hate the word and its use in application to music. It tends to be used as a cudgel to beat down music perceived as insufficiently crafted or manipulated, formally naive, rhythmically unchallenging, or lacking in visual complexity on the page. The category of "detail", a term casually thrown about, is usually used to confirm that, at the very least, if a piece is "detailed", the composer has passed the test of Protestant work ethic, having obviously slaved away writing down tons of notes, or made a beautiful, eye-catching score, or kept all his/her instruments busy with figuration, guaranteeing that the players will have to practice hard. So venerated is the idea of detail that it has become an independent compositional virtue, praiseworthy in its own right. I once had a highly respected Canadian composer note positively the orchestrational detail in one of my pieces before proceeding to denigrate every other aspect of it, stylistic, aesthetic, rhetorical, formal, and question how I'd ever gotten into a doctoral program writing this kind of backward-looking drivel. At least it was detailed, though. In a more positive experience, I once asked a teacher of mine in the States if I should send my saxophone sonata to a competition that specifically forbade the inclusion of audio of the submitted scores. I thought it was weird that the judges didn't want to hear any of the pieces, the sounding result being the point, or so I thought. (Ah, the naïveté of youth.) He responded that, yes, I should, because the level of detail in the score would be obvious and get the piece noticed. I sent it in. I didn't win anything.

And yet, if pressed, I bet neither of them could narrow down exactly what "detail" is, and why it's so valuable on its own that music perceived to be less detailed looks poorer in comparison. I've been puzzled by this question not only because it's an issue I struggle with on a daily basis both conceptually and notationally – how much is too much? too little? – but because I'd always firmly believed that the working out of a piece on whatever level, harmony, rhythm, notation, orchestration, is entirely contextual, and the degree of detail depends on the needs of the piece, the performer, the occasion. Even those factors aren't real arbiters of detail. One of my most complexly-notated choral pieces was written for amateurs, one of the simplest, for professionals, because the pieces just needed to be that way. Many of my "undetailed" pieces are among the best I've written, far higher in my affections than the sax sonata mentioned above. (I wrote that one in part to show I could do the academic modernist/serialist thing, and make it sound better than the people being held up as models for me at the time. But I still like the piece and very much wanted it to be the way it is.)

Some of my favorite pieces by others, some minimalist, many not, are marked by a lack of perceived detail. Would we describe a Morales motet as lacking in detail? Definitely not on the contrapuntal level, but on the level of dynamic shaping and registral variety, probably. We can rant about historical notation practices all we want, but the visual appearance of Morales doesn't in the least alter the music's quality. The same could be said for a Mozart piano sonata with infrequent dynamic markings, or a recent post-minimalist score dealing only in white notes. Is Bach's first prelude from WTC detailed? Not especially, no. Is the quality of that piece versus the time that probably went into composing it – I'm guessing minutes – a subject of debate? Detail is not a marker of craft, or work ethic, or sophistication, or experience, or quality. It's a marker of detail, period.

All that said, the category of detail, despite its slippery-to-nonexistent definition, has a you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality to it. I have a natural penchant toward more detail rather than less. But here I sit, staring at my score feeling vaguely uncomfortable, despite a couple of moments where all 19 string players go off on their own tangents, at how much of the piece just seems to hang there, a field of footballs on the page, no dynamic shifts, no change to the harmony, no variety in the notation, little inner motion within the textures... no detail. Some little solo bits and boxes over the top make it less unrelievedly blank, but overall it's a series of static fields, with little to no bass function, and the strings shift around in masses rather than sharply defined lines. When it gets rhythmic at long last it just sort of chugs along in unison eighth- or sixteenth-notes, not trying to get anywhere or develop, largely dependent on the horn for whatever direction it acquires. If it's brave at all, it's perhaps because I strung out the uneventfulness over a longer span of time than I normally would, in order to make the somewhat naïve conversion to all-out pop music at the end more dramatic. I meant it to be this way, and yet I find myself sincerely hoping it's all going to work out the way I intended, and that the devil is not, in fact, where he is said to be.

No comments: