I visited/attended a composition seminar down at Yale in New Haven, CT this past Thursday, and the guest lecturer for that day was Matthias Pintscher, a well-reputed composer and conductor from Europe who spends a lot of time in the U.S.  It was a fascinating discussion of his music and artistic views, which incorporated some of his influences ranging from resonance to the visual arts.

He is in the lineage of mostly European classical composers and musicians before him, one of his idols being Boulez (with whom he has worked), and as I glanced at his scores and listened to both his lecture and music I began to wonder about detail.  His scores are very detailed, and he admits that he strives to put in a nearly anal-retentive amount of precision in the score, which helps to yield good results.  I began to wonder, though: How much detail is enough?  How much is too much?

There are many pieces that leave details up to the player or situation, and they are in genres by themselves in the “indeterminate” category.  But, for most “normally”-notated pieces, I am at first inclined to respond that it depends on the player.  Some players prefer more artistic license than others, and some demand more detail in the score.  Mr. Pintscher says that he finds that players find high detail liberating; that is, players take command and explore ways to artistically execute detail, when faced with a lot of detail.  I see some truth in this, but I think that he made another good balancing point in his lecture when he acknowledged that although composers may like to have complete control in all music-making aspects of performance (in rehearsals, readings, recordings, performances, etc.), the amount of input we have as composers is generally limited to the score.  The actual process of realizing the score is something we have to let go of, and leave up to the performers and conductor.

So, to answer the questions: Detail is important, and the more detail, the more input you have in creating the piece that you want to hear.  But, you have to allow freedom to the performers and conductor.  I feel that too much detail can constrict performers, and they might ignore it anyways (isn’t it hard to count how often string players re-bow their parts despite our indications?).  Too much detail may include:

  • Excessive rhythmic value specification
  • Calling for too many techniques that must be executed exactly as written
  • Not allowing flexibility in phrasing
  • Too many textual/prose instructions
  • Calling for too many simultaneous techniques

Too little detail can lead to a loss of sense of direction for a piece, so a balance needs to be made.  This balance may depend on the piece and ensemble playing it, but it still has to be a balance.  Too little detail can depict a lack of interest by the composer, and too much detail can “turn off” a player by not giving them room to breathe.

Being conscious of one’s level of detail is a hard ability for some of us composers (like myself) who see the whole picture before details emerge, but it is a skill we have to use.  What are your thoughts–how much detail is sufficient?  When is it overkill, or when is its presence too little?  Feel free to tweet me your thoughts–@danlismusic on Twitter.

Thanks for reading,