04. April 2009 · 2 comments · Categories: Ramble

I have puzzled over some issues with new works, and I’m just going to put up a few questions here. I am not being sarcastic. Really. I’m just curious about some issues.

Recently one of my students was given a suggestion. A composer of a new work thought the student might consider playing the composer’s new work on a plastic oboe reed. This was one thing that got me going on this. Another is that, some years ago, I played a wrong note in a new work (no, I didn’t do it on purpose). The composer didn’t have a clue. Another time we were doing a new work and a musician asked the composer a question about a note and the composer actually didn’t know which note he wanted. It didn’t really matter to him.

These things just cause me to puzzle over some new music. If it doesn’t matter what note I play, what does matter? What is that work about? If I can play on a plastic oboe reed, what is it about the oboe that is important? It must not be the timbre (believe me, a plastic reed doesn’t sound like a reed of cane). We spend a great deal of time perfecting our craft, working on our tone, intonation, phrasing, technique … you get the idea. And then we sometimes get works where none of that matters at all.

Yes, I find works like that frustrating. But mostly I’m curious what the composer is thinking. If a beginning oboist would be just as fine as one who’s been training for years, what does this mean?


  1. Hi Patty:

    Enjoy reading your blog. I used to play the oboe (thru freshman year of college). Knew that I wanted to major in composition though, so oboe was the first thing to go. And making reeds drove me nuts.

    Anyway, to give a few thoughts about your “what DOES matter” comment from a composer . . . sometimes the rhythm matters more than pitch. Sometimes gestures or texture matter more than pitch or notes. It depends on context and what the composer wants to do.

    Also, some composers are more sensitive to things other than pitch. Once in a while, I miss wrong notes in a very busy texture. I am more sensitive to rhythmic mistakes, and especially notice if the ensemble is just playing the notes with no feeling or shape or direction.

    I once read something about Woody Allen giving direction to an actor before shooting a scene, and telling the actor “if you don’t like these lines, make up something else”. Which says to me that he trusted the actor to know enough to come up with something that “worked” in the scene, regardless of the specific words. Perhaps a bit similar to a composer with his notes.

    Then there’s the fact that you (as a performer) have been practicing your part and rehearsing the piece. You have a more immediate familiarity with the piece than the composer does – s/he may have written it months (years) ago, and their head may be firmly stuck in the piece they are writing *now*. I know I have to re-study a piece before I show up to hear an ensemble rehearse a piece of mine.

    Hopefully a composer *will* be clear about what *is* important, won’t be a jerk about saying so, and will listen to what the performers / conductor has to say. Hey, we’re human too, and our ears aren’t perfect.

    As for the plastic oboe reed, though, that does seem a little weird. Less so if the composer was able to communicate something about the sound or color of that device – maybe said something like: “you know, I heard this plastic reed that had this really weird nasal color to it, and I think that would really fit this piece. Is there a possibility you could use a reed that will be really nasaly?” But that’s just a guess.

    Sorry for a bit of a ramble.

    Again, fun to read your travels and travails.

    Mark W.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks SO much for taking my post seriously and not taking offense. Or at least not showing that you too offense if you did! It’s great to hear from you.

    What you write is quite helpful. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of those points before. (I must credit my husband, though, for immediately jumping in when I wrote the post … he, too, said there ARE reasons that one might not necessarily be insistent about certain pitches, or might not hear the mistakes we make.)

    I think I’ll actually ask the composer about the plastic reed suggestion, as I’m quite curious about that. For me, it is quite painful to hear AND play, and I can’t imagine wanting that sound. I love the sounds of different double reeds from other countries and don’t mind at all those screeching ones … but to ask for a plastic oboe reed is truly a mystery to me!

    I hope you continue to comment when you feel like it. And it wasn’t a ramble at all. I, the Queen of Rambles, can say that with certainty. (My rambles make very little sense and will very likely drive some people nuts!)