May 2017

I’ve had the great honor to work with some amazing conductors. Men and women who not only have a gift for incredible beauty in the physical language of conducting, but a fierce desire to improve the relationship between all musical parties - composer, performer, audience, and beyond. Several months ago, I attended a symposium on conducting at Michigan State University run by the MSU Director of Orchestras, Kevin Noe. Professor Noe is also the Executive Artistic Director of the Pittsburg New Music Ensemble. It was my honor to attend Professor Noe’s studio classes for a year while pursuing my master’s degree at MSU. I returned for this symposium and, as usual, Professor Noe and the attending conductors brought up many, many fantastic points for composers to consider...


1: Composers often forget that the path between the composer and the performer necessitates an interpreter.

That interpreter is, of course, the conductor. It is rare that a composition lesson goes by without the instructor commenting on score clarity for the sake of the performers. And rightly so. But admittedly, never did I have a composition lesson during which the instructor asked, “Is this clear for the conductor.” This is not a failing on the part of my TREMENDOUS composition instructors, rather an interesting insight into the thinking of score creation. Of course composers want their music to be clearly stated for performers. They are our first audience after all. But it is interesting that the conductors is not often thought of within that collective. Now, this is exaggeration. Of course we think of the conductor from the standpoint of score size, ease of page turns, etc. But do we think of them in the creation of individual lines. I endeavor to believe that the best composers do, but young composers often learn this lesson the hard way - during a live reading. Imagine, for example, a score of gentle string ensemble lines just littered with hairpin dynamics. There are so many things to consider here: 1 - Do these markings reflect appropriate orchestrational thought? 2 - Are these markings the entirety of the musical moment taking place? 3 - (Here’s my favorite) Does the inherent nature of the passage match the indicated markings or, is this something that a sensitive and educated conductor would discern on his or her own? The relationship between creator and interpreter is a delicate one. And we must remember that western musical notation is one of the most uncommunicative forms of translating music in existence! Therefore, what questions are we left with here composers?

1) Is your musical language clear enough yet uncluttered by unnecessary notation, especially at the ensemble score level?

2) Do you trust your conducting counterparts to act as an effective interpreter of your musical language?

3) Does the delicate nature of that communication and that relationship necessitate the presence of the composer to truly interpret intentions accurately.

Now, I’ve had wonderful interactions with conductors who dive into my music and stretch it to its furthest potential, discovering things even I hadn’t realized upon writing. However, I’ve also had the opposite experience with conductors who never look beyond the surface. It’s a conundrum for both siblings in this musical relationship.

How do we solve it?