Division of Labor

The piece I’ve been working on (yep, same one—who do you think I am, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz?) is for two instruments, and in the movement I’m looking at, one of the instruments is working a lot harder than the other one. This wasn’t by design, but it got me thinking about what a piece that was designed that way would be like. I mean a piece where the technical demands of each respective instrument were so divergent that it was noticeable to the listener.

I’m not counting didactic pieces, where one part is for the student and one for the teacher, or occasional pieces written for amateur performers (like Barber’s “Excursions”)—with that type of music, if it’s done well, the contrast in skill is mediated, rather than exploited. I want music where the disparity is part of the drama. I’ve only ever heard one piece like this: a Charles Wuorinen song called “Christes Crosse,” really a recomposition of a song by Thomas Morley. (There’s an mp3 sample on Wuorinen’s website.) The soprano sings a simple hymn-like tune over and over again; with each repeat, the piano realization becomes more dense, complex, and frenzied. I’m not sure what effect Wuorinen was aiming for, but in performance, the result is a Beckettesque comedy of desperation. The pianist struggles mightily, while the singer grows ever more alienated from the collaboration, ultimately oblivious to the accompanist’s suffering.

There must be other examples—I can’t imagine that Cage or Berio (two likely suspects) never thought of something like this. The effective possibilities are intriguing; I could imagine using the idea to allude to narratives of cruelty, indifference, political disenfranchisement, stoicism, or slapstick.

What’s really interesting to me is that there was a time when I wouldn’t have even been able to come up with this idea. I remember a couple of years where my compositional thinking became so divorced from the physical necessity of performance that I was writing abstract sound, without any thought of how it would be produced. My guess is most composers go through a phase like this. I can’t imagine they stay there for long, though: we need performers, or else we perform the music ourselves. But I’m only realizing now that one of the main tenets of my aesthetic view of the world—the wonderful messiness of life—makes that materialist side of creating music a particularly enticing playground.

One comment

  1. Funny you mention – Berio did write a set of violin duets intended for student & teacher. A few seasons ago the SF Symphony played them: each chair in the violin section was paired with a chair in the SF Youth Symphony Orch, and each pair played one of the (12?) duets in turn.I would have to give them another listen, but I don’t remember the pieces exploiting technical/performance differences between the two parts. I think they were mostly a vehicle for violin students to be able to perform. And Berio wrote them, so you know they were good.

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