Posted on February 21, 2011 at 8:55 am

Some of you may have already read Georgia’s blog, in which she responds to questions about performance practice and score interpretation posed by our friend, Bruce Mayhall (who we met when he was the conductor of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles). As it happens, Bruce sent the same questions to me, and I thought I’d post my answers as a complement to Georgia’s.

Interestingly (or predictably), Georgia and I say a lot of the same things, but my answers are much more pretentious and overthought, which is probably reflective of our relationship in general.

So, first: what would you say are the most significant tasks of conductors/performers in transferring your notation to realization? Do you regard the score as rather proscriptive, carefully notating what you want and expect adherence to it, or do you view it more as a skeleton to which re-creative artists add the flesh and dress? What about rhythmic or pitch ornamentation (do you permit, want it?)

Since I write for the theater primarily, I am necessarily writing for character, and one of the most important musical definitions of a character is what I would call, for lack of a more precise term, “style.” Style consists of a great number of details, all of which determine (or are determined by) the specific character at hand. Even “character” is a broad term, because I might be referring to, say, an entire town, or a whole office, as having a particular character, and therefore a particular style. When honing in on that exact style, I’ll often choose to allude to a given musical genre. It’s vitally important for the performers of my work (and the conductors) to understand the conventions of that genre. Written notation is a guide, but even at its most ridiculously specific, there are elements that can’t be transcribed. I’ve learned over the years that cramming too many specifics into the written score is just confusing – musicians who understand the stylistic requirements of a given piece don’t need a lot of that information, and musicians who don’t understand the style are overwhelmed by details.

All that having been said, I’ve also come to accept, with some reluctance, that there’s only a certain amount of control that any composer has once he/she decides to release his/her music into the world for performances not under his/her direct supervision. (In fact, even those performances that are under my direct supervision may not perfectly represent the sound I hear in my head. Collaborating is a negotiation between the desired and the possible.) Especially now, with so many technological aids at our disposal, I expect interpreters of my work to digest both the written score and any other sources (video, audio) that may guide them to understanding my stylistic intentions. And the best interpreters will add another layer to that, which is their own sense of what is the best way to tell the story that I’ve enlisted their help in telling.

As far as ornamentation goes, I always view such things warily. The fact is that much of my work is performed by amateurs, and they are not always (or often) well guided in matters of taste or consistency. In those circumstances, I really prefer everyone to stick to the written information as scrupulously as possible, and I labor to make the notated score reflective of a certain amount of “post-compositional interpretation,” which is to say, backphrasing, “riffing,” melisma, all of which would be consistent with the particular style in which I’m writing. But outside of the amateur realm, I’m of the belief that the most talented performers will make the choices that make sense to them, and I want those performers to feel like they have room to make those choices. Smart and tasteful ornamentations that are within the given style are generally not just welcome but necessary. Of course, if I’m present, I may still rein in some of those decisions or ask those performers to stick to the written phrase, but that give-and-take is part of the joy of collaborative music-making.

Do you prefer to have conductors consult you about questions they may have about interpreting your work (by either collaboration on the project, or discussions with you about specific concerns) or do you want them to bring their own best skill to the process?

The best answer here is Yes. A conductor who truly has a grasp on the stylistic and technical demands of any given piece of mine is still likely to bump up against something that doesn’t, on first or even twentieth hearing, make sense. It may be that I, as the composer, can help make sense of that. It may be that the conductor makes sense of it in his/her own way. But it would be ideal if the conductor’s “own way” were informed by what the composer actually intended, even if it wasn’t identical.

Secondly, how does vocal quality differ in Broadway performers from say, pop singers or operatic/oratorio style singing? What are the most important skills for a vocalist to develop to appropriately present your work?

The primary difference between theatrical singing and the other kinds you mention is that, while technically it can be very difficult, theatrical singing is primarily concerned with communicating text. That need predominates even musical considerations, which is why there are many famous instances of theater singers who could not, in any real sense, sing at all. (Rex Harrison is the most celebrated example, but there have been many others; Harvey Fierstein is starring in a Broadway musical right now.) My work, of course, is not intended to be presented in such a, um, tonally compromised manner, but the point is the same: if you can’t tell the story, you shouldn’t sing the song. The musical choices are part of that storytelling, naturally, but the most important skills for a singer doing my work are about communicating the needs of the character. (And some of that skill refers back to the first question above.)

What instrumental combinations are best for your work? Live players and acoustic, traditional instruments – and/or synthesized, programmed computerized sound, and/or electrified instruments? Do you orchestrate your own work?

Every piece has its own sound; songs from Parade have a deliberately different instrumental palette than songs from 13. That being said, my preference in live performance is always going to be for acoustic instruments (or at least, electrified acoustic instruments played through an amplifier). Part of that is just practical – I’m never satisfied with the sound balance when synthesizers or programming are combined with live instrumentalists, and I think it’s much less satisfying for the other players. I’ve seen and heard it work very successfully, but I don’t have much interest in dealing with it in general. What I cannot in any way abide is using synthesizers or recordings to substitute for real musicians playing. That particular aesthetic, all too prevalent on Broadway right now, is offensive to me on both a musical and a personal level. If you can’t afford the full complement of musicians called for, then make a beautiful sound with the instruments you can afford; but don’t hire one keyboard and try to make it sound like 20 musicians. I do orchestrate my own work for the most part, though there are times in the creation of a musical when it’s just not practical to do so – when in the midst of writing and rewriting a new show, orchestrating is just too time-consuming, and there are other people who are perfectly qualified to at least sketch out the orchestra parts. The other instance where I won’t do my orchestrations is if I genuinely feel someone can do them better; Parade was such a huge and varied palette that I realized I didn’t have the skills to translate it all, and Don Sebesky did a magnificent job and taught me a lot about how to realize my music in an orchestral context. (For the London revival of Parade, I was similarly rescued by the extraordinary David Cullen.)

Tempo: do you mark M. M. = ; or do you use objective/subjective words to convey your tempos? Is tempo fluctuation desireable (according to emotional content of the text? or other factors?), or do you (again) specify in your score and expect conformity?

It’s changed as I’ve gotten older. A lot of my music is “groove”-based, and I find that specifying the actual BPM of that groove (and having the musicians follow a click) is going to make an accurate reading of the piece much more likely. As a playing musician myself, I used to really resent the metronome markings, thinking that it didn’t give me any freedom to make my own groove or whatever. Ultimately, I feel like I might as well put it in the score, and if the musicians choose to ignore it, there’s not much I can do about that. Significantly, though, I don’t use specific BPM’s when writing music of a more “legit” nature; in those instances, I’ll use a more descriptive term for the tempo marking. Parade is more the latter; 13 almost exclusively the former.

Rhythms: do you notate “swung” rhythm or would you expect (as in pop and jazz notations) performers to understand what is appropriate to your style?

For the most part now, I just write standard eighth-notes and indicate “swing” or “8th-note equals triplet quarter-note/eighth.” Triplet rhythms are still not an entirely accurate representation of swing, since swing as a term encompasses a lot of different kinds of rhythms, some of which swing “harder” than others. This still comes back to what we talked about in the first question – knowing style is important.

Thanks, Bruce, for the thought-provoking questions! Four days until we leave for Australia!