Tuesday, June 03, 2008

not worth the trouble to play it, a short rumination on music that is a pain in the ass to play

It is interesting, in the wake of some personal experience, to consider the statement that declares that this or that piece is impossible to play or that the technical demands of the work outstrip the musical value that could be obtained from playing the thing. To put it in rather crude terms if the thing is going to be a bitch to play it better be a kick-ass piece, right? Well, I just got word through the grapevine that a pair of pieces I composed for solo guitar were run by a guitarist at my alma mater and the guitarist found the pieces very difficult to play and wasn't sure that the pieces were musically worth such trouble as they would impose upon him. Ah ... could be true.

This is the part where as a composer and guitarist I consider some of the works in the past that were considered "unplayable" that are now standards of the repertoire. There's a violin concerto or two and some string quartets that were considered "unplayable". What this usually means is that the pieces were not considered musically worth the technical trouble they caused. And it's true that there are pieces that require more than three or for rehearsals to come off and that by and large those pieces may not be worth the trouble if we're talking about a symphonic piece.

And yet in solo repertoire people seem to aspire to some of the more difficult, even downright brutal pieces like the Hammerklavier. Of course the adage would be that only Beethoven could write something musically worth the trouble the Hammerklavier brings upon anyone who dares to play it. Fair enough. I am hardly ever going to be able to consider the day when I, as a composer, could say that my music is worth that sort of attention century after century.

On the other hand, when I consider music that I have trouble playing that seems to be recorded regularly I end up thinking one of two things.

1. How does anyone attempt to quantify the level of technical difficulty in relationship to the level of rewarding musical substance?
2. Are "unplayable" masterpieces really unplayable or just impractical?


Musical substance is impossible to rationally assess and one of the weird things about music that continues to amaze me is what is considered hard or easy to play. The other weird thing is what is considered musically substantive. There are people in the world who adore the music of Scriabin. Well, uh, thank God SOMEONE likes Scriabin, I guess. There are people who even like Mahler, some of whom are friends of mine. I don't get Mahler and may NEVER get Mahler, just as I may always hate Mahler with a passion for which words often fail me.

It is nonetheless interesting to me that a lot of what is considered "hard" in guitar repertoire is hard not because of the actual technique required by the piece but because of conceptual issues. A guitarist may decide something is difficult simply because of the key the piece is in. Or a piece might be a genuinely brutal piece because of alternating pedal tones arrived at by a portamento of the pinky on an adjacent string while a sustained bass-line is being held down by the 2 finger (I'm not making htis up, it's a basically closed-position pattern that is the reason oen of my pieces was considered to be basically not worth the trouble).

A guitarist who was wrapping up grad school sent me an email once and shared something that is likely to be controversial. He said that most professional guitarists are pussies. Remember folks, he said it, not me, and for sake of avoiding any hating I'm not attributing. The guitarist wrote that a lot of guitarists are not really interested in playing the especially challenging stuff or playing new stuff but going through the standards.

Perhaps not coincidentally this is a guitarist who has gone through my work and said that it's repertoire that requires a somewhat unorthodox approach to technique but that it's all perfectly playable.

So is this some kind of object lesson that some things are hard to play less because they're really impossible or impractical to play, but are instead considered hard because they require unusual deviations from standard pedagogy about instrumental technique? Something I'm mulling over. One thing I do know is that if yours truly can play the piece but with a certain amount of effort it doesn't mean the piece is unplayable. And another thing I hasten to add is that composers who play instruments seem more eager to stretch themselves either in technique or concepts. I make this clarifying point because I've never heard a work by Andrew York yet that I liked but I'm sure that he's written pieces that stretch technique to its outer limits. I'm afraid I have to say I just don't like any of the music he's written that I've heard. But that's veering off what I have been pondering lately.


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