Part 6: Silent partners

Contemporary composers should think twice before writing parts no one can hear, says Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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You do find yourself having some pretty unusual debates at the Proms. Last night, for instance, I found myself skirting around the edges of a rather fragile argument between a music critic and a well-known composer on the merits of the piano part in Michael Jarrell’s Sillages (see right).

The revised version of this piece, at 25 minutes, was an unusually generous Proms premiere, but there were some mixed feelings about it afterwards. Texturally kaleidoscopic and harmonically attractive though it was, there was a general consensus that the compositional material did not really justify the piece’s length; and that – rather more damningly – the piano part was almost completely inaudible.

This was one of those piano parts that takes place almost entirely on the interior of the instrument, the pianist’s role being to stroke or brush the exposed strings with his or her fingers. It is a nice effect, to be sure, but one which is arguably lost in an orchestral context.

'But you’re not supposed to hear it,' said the well-known composer. 'It’s part of the texture.' My music critic friend was not convinced. If you can’t hear it, how could it be considered part of the texture? 'Perhaps you don’t realise you’re hearing it,' came the response, 'but you are.'

Now, I do buy that argument to some extent. For example, the subsequent item on last night’s programme by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was Berlioz’s Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, a piece whose instrumentation features nine trombones, five piccolos, four tubas and five bass drums. Among others.

In that instance every instrument did contribute to the overall effect – one of sheer volume – even though no single player could be discerned within the texture. On the other hand, it’s been more than a quarter of a century since that particular Berlioz piece has been performed at the Proms. You do the maths.

The truth is that new music – especially new orchestral music – is costly to perform. It requires specialised instrumental techniques that are difficult to master and additional rehearsal time as an inescapable result of the score’s unfamiliarity. The return on investment for most orchestras is minimal, if not negative. Couple this with the expense of taking such a work on tour – as was the case last night – and you begin to see that advocacy of new music is an act of purist altruism.

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Orchestras, especially those funded by the licence fee, as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is, have a responsibility to promote contemporary music, to keep the tradition they themselves are a part of alive for future generations.
 
But composers have a responsibility too. I can’t help but think of the Pareto principle, which states that 80 per cent of what you get out is caused by just 20 per cent of what you put in. If that pianist had stayed at home, rather than having to be bussed in and put up in a London hotel, would anybody listening have noticed the difference? In all honesty, probably not – and that’s something any composer who wants to hear their work performed more than every 25 years should take into consideration.
 

Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a  contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...
 
Image: C. Daguet/Editions Henry Lemoine.

 

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