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The Composer Conducts

Vaclav Nelhybel | December 2013

    This gem from our archives originally appeared in the November 1974 issue of The Instrumentalist.

    The composer and conductor are two independent agents functioning on two remote levels.
    The composer operates as an individual. He is ego-centered and the impulse for his action comes from within. His tools are a collection of disciplines geared to enable him to translate individual sounds and complex simultaneities of sounds, rhythms, and tone colors into visual symbols. He must choose his materials carefully in order to achieve a constant relation of all elements resulting in his own musical style. Finally, he has to mold all the chosen shapes into the tight framework of a structural form. He does not hear, but imagines sounds, combining them vertically and organizing them horizontally. All of this happens only in his mind. The piano is of very limited help. He can rely only on previous experiences with performances of his own works or on the analysis and study of recordings.
    The conductor, on the other hand, operates with live sounds produced by a collective body of individual players. The composer’s score is the point of departure for his activity, and the performing group is the material that he is working with. His tools are a collection of virtually the same disciplines as those of the composer, but they are geared to enable him to understand the composer’s score and to imagine its actual sound. From the printed page, the conductor must find the thematic elements and their interaction; he must recognize the structural make-up of the composition  and  have the know-how to materialize all this into live sound. The conductor is the mediator between the composer and the performing musicians. First he has to de-compose the work in  his own mind and then he has to recreate it in live sound. In this phase of his activities he communicates the printed score to the musicians and leads them in the final communication of the composer’s ideas to the listeners through the medium of performance.

The Guest Composer/Conductor
    While standing in front of a performing group as the conductor of my own music, I too have to make up my mind on how to transfer the printed page of a score into sound. Of course, I do have the considerable advantage of knowing the score thoroughly, but I am still functioning only as the re-creator of a score.
    Let us take an actual situation – I am in a high school band room with a group I have neither seen nor heard and with whom I am supposed to perform some of my own compositions.
During the ten years that I have been a guest conductor I have developed a certain system, an unwritten checklist for this type of situation. First, I look at the band and check the size and instrumentation. I might find a preponderance of brass instruments, a great number of Bb soprano clarinets and only one bass or contrabass clarinet (perhaps none), and a disproportionate number of saxophones. Although I have not yet heard a single note played by the band, I already have some information on possible balance problems that will have to be taken into consideration.
    The warmup starts, and I begin to check my visual findings with the actual sound. I might find out that this band does have overpowering, brilliant trumpets and trombones, yet the tuba sound is not focused enough and the horns should be doubled in number to match the rest of the brass; the woodwinds might be top-heavy and the double reeds might be below the general technical level of the band. The percussion might be only a glorified drum section, with inadequate efficiency and subtlety in the mallet instruments. (Fortunately, this is less and less true.)
    During the warmup, I have learned about the balance,  sound quality,  and dynamic sensitivity of the band, and I have gauged the players’ reactions to the conductor. Following the warm-up, I usually ask the local director to take the band through a part of the composition that I am supposed to conduct, so that I can measure the overall technical efficiency of the band as well as make an evaluation of each section. After the band has played for about five minutes, I am quite aware of its good and bad qualities, and it is time for me to go into action.
    Let us assume the band has many weaknesses and is ill-prepared. Now I will have to decide what I might be able to change in the short rehearsal time available and to what degree I will have to compromise – or in general, what kind of adjustment I will have to make in order to achieve the maximum result that I think I can reach with this band, without damaging the composition. It is in this area that the composer/conductor has a unique insight.
    Often a rather minor reduction in tempo can result in a more relaxed and convincing performance. Whenever I feel that the players are struggling with fast passages, I find the tempo at which they can play all the notes comfortably without neglecting dynamic and other markings. If that tempo turns out to be somewhat slower than necessary to achieve the required drive of the music, I will still maintain the adjusted (slower) tempo and try to compensate for the lowering of the speed by other means, according to the specific character of the composition.  In many situations of this kind, a strong emphasis on detailed dynamics and somewhat exaggerated expressive phrasing will result in a convincing rendition of the composition. It is important to remember that, even though the technical difficulties that necessitated the adjusted tempo occurred only in one segment of the composition, the whole movement (or perhaps the entire composition) will have to be adjusted. A movement with the tempo indication allegro con brio might become an allegro poco marcato. It will still be an allegro, but because the whole movement was stretched out and intensified expressively, no real damage was done.
    The same thing – in reverse – can be done with very slow movements. Breathing and intonation problems caused by long sustained phrasing can at times seriously impair the projection of the musical content. Speeding up a heavy, very slow dramatic movement will result in a somewhat lyrical, lighter performance, but strict consistency in the adjustment will justify the change of tempo.
    Perhaps because of the finger technique of young players, the question that band directors ask me most frequently is: “How fast do you want such and such a composition to be played?” Whenever I don’t know the band, my answer is never a dogmatic metronomic indication. The more mature (musically) and the more efficient (technically) the band is, the faster you can play the fast movements and the slower the slow ones.
    The right choice of tempo for the band is, I feel, the first and most important decision to be made. A major misjudgment of tempo can result in a total misrepresentation of the score, even if the musicians are able to play all the notes with all the markings. Music lives in time, and therefore the right tempo is the first concern for me.
    After I have found what I feel is the right tempo, I concentrate on dynamics, a vital and structurally important dimension of music. The lack of dynamic differentiation is a rather frequent problem in band performances, so I spend considerable time in the rehearsal to make the players aware of the expressive power of dynamics. Dynamic differentiation of culmination points and long stretched build-ups, the variety of shapes of expressive dynamic curves in phrases, sudden dynamic contrasts – these are some of the dynamic guidelines that I try to establish in great detail and on whose execution I insist relentlessly.
    Tempo and dynamics are the first two elements that a conductor must deal with in his approach to any composition. This, then, is the very general answer that I would give when asked how my music should be performed: choose the tempo in which the players are able to execute all the notes with all expressive markings; if the chosen tempo is either slower or faster than indicated in the score, compensate with dynamics by over-emphasizing all expressive markings in fast movements, and deemphasizing slightly in slow movements. Whatever the situation, a logical relation between tempo and dynamics must be maintained. Without it, a convincing performance cannot be achieved.