Making Dynamics Dynamic

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When I was learning to drive, my father gave me the advice that you shouldn’t rely on other cars’ indicators to work out what they were going to do, but instead take note of their road position and speed. It’s quite possible for someone to have failed to cancel their indicator, or for them to think they are using it, but the bulb has gone, and if you rely on that misleading information to make decisions, you could cause an accident. So, he taught me, make your judgements about what other drivers are likely to do by seeing how they’re driving, and look at the indicators for confirmation. Likewise, drive in such a way that other drivers can tell what you’re going to do.

Much the same principle, historically, applies to dynamic markings in music. Musical shape (texture, harmony, voicing, contour) tells you a lot about how you should perform the music if you attend to it. Rose Rosengard Subotnik wrote about the proliferation of sforzandi in Beethoven’s music as indicating a ‘loss of semiotic certainty’, reflecting a need to add extra, paramusical information about the ‘how’ through a fear that it would not otherwise be played as it should be. Those 19th- and 20th-century editors who littered older music with extra layers of instructions likewise seem to evince a mistrust of performers’ judgement.

And I guess this is why I often feel impatient when conversation about performance turns to dynamic markings. The critique of a performance on the basis that it ‘didn’t have enough dynamics’ seems like a very superficial one, focusing on this additional layer of instruction put there for the idiots who couldn’t work it out for themselves. Why are you not talking about musical substance? I wonder. We could talk about colour, shape, gesture, texture and all the panoply of features that makes music, well, dynamic, and here you are belly-aching about louds and softs. It all feels rather two-dimensional.

Forte and piano at least carry some kind of expressive implications. Those who work on ‘dynamics’ with their singers as a notional volume control, level setting from 1 to 10 (why not 11, I wonder? Maybe because of Isabel Bailey) strip out even this generic sense of musical meaning. It strikes me that the point of dynamics should be to make the music more interesting, not to over-simplify it.

What I find interesting is how the term we use for all this - ‘dynamics’ - in usual speech would mean something had life and energy and movement. It implies something multi-dimensional and attention-grabbing and responsive in real time, not something merely obedient along a single scale. This is why I much prefer to talk about ‘expressive range’ rather than ‘dynamics’, though it is the weirdly limited usage of the latter among musicians rather than the word itself that I have a problem with.

So, after a rather soap-boxy approach to all this, back to my title: how do we go about making dynamics that are actually dynamic?

  • Develop a more varied expressive vocabulary. When you say ‘soft’, do you mean, ‘hushed’, ‘gentle’, ‘intimate’, ‘awe-struck’, or ‘menacing’? All of these are synonyms for ‘quiet’ in some musical context or another, but they are also very different from one another.
  • Think of musical shape in terms of process and movement. Where does it want to drive forward, to what point of arrival? Where does it want to linger and relish the moment? What is the manner of its locomotion: does it bound, skip, leap? When it stops, does it settle, or is it poised to continue?
  • Consider the music as something which affects its listeners. What is the music aiming to do to people at any particular point? Does it want to soothe, to move, to impress, to intrigue, to entice, to surprise? The performer’s job is to help the music do this. Musicking becomes a transitive verb.

By all means observe dynamic markings in music that uses them. (Well, when they’re the composer’s markings. Feel free to disagree with editorial markings if you like.) They are very useful clues to help us figure out the expressive shape and meaning of the music. But they are not there to be obeyed; they are there to be understood.

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