1:50am // One of my recent and more exciting projects has been a commission for a set of art songs for solo voice and marimba. In writing these songs, I’ve had to face limitations as to what I could write for each instrument and for the ensemble. I’ve had tendencies in some of my past compositions to really demand the maximum from both the performer and the listener, filling every moment with thick counterpoint, complex rhythms, or technically challenging material. However, when I think about the composers whom I truly admire, especially Beethoven and Copland, I discover that I am moved by their works not because they try to do as much as possible in any given moment or because they turn the complexity knob up to 11; rather, I’m drawn to their works because they have something truly genuine and beautiful to say and they express their message in a way that is simple, direct, and uncluttered. Copland’s famed Parisian teacher, Nadia Boulanger, told him to write as many notes as he wanted, but to only keep those which were absolutely necessary.
While I was working on the aforementioned song cycle, I received an e-mail form the marimba player I was working with regarding one particular piece. In writing this particular marimba part, I had followed my old tendencies to do as much as I could contrapuntally, texturally, and rhythmically. Due to the technical limitations of the instrument, the result was a part which was nearly impossible to execute accurately, much less musically.
So, I went back to the sketch pad. I had already written as many notes as I wanted; now it was time to keep only those which were absolutely necessary. As I slashed away at unnecessary notes and reworked lines and harmonies, something wonderful happened. The music became less and less cluttered and the genuine message of the music began to shine through. Although limitations can be frustrating for any artist, they can give us the opportunity to focus on what is important and to shed the extra clutter we’ve piled on top of our original message. Limitations give us the chance to say “no!” to our own tendencies of saying as much as possible and they invite us to say only that which is necessary.
– Daniel Foley