The Sequanza 21 tips thread

My recent reposting of “Tips for Composers” has drawn an unprecedented number of comments to Vftp, most of them positive.

Not necessarily so at Sequenza 21, where there were as of this writing 43 comments ranging from positive to downright indignant. I’ve posted the following as a comment there, and also here for regular Vftp readers….

“Well…. how interesting to catch on to this thread after a few days.

Maybe now’s the time to respond to a couple of things, and try to underline some important qualifying points I made in my post.

First, I tried to make clear- the advice is only practical and advances no artistic or aesthetic agenda. I read Kyle Gann’s blog regularly and always am interested in his point of view, so was doubly saddened to hear him summarize my attitude as “That conductor’s advice pretty much boils down to, “Be as conformist and inoffensive and unobtrusive and inconspicuous as possible, and maybe the orchestra can zip through your piece without too much objection from the board.”

Far from it- I can imagine nothing more pointless, unrewarding or tedious than conducting conformist and inoffensive music, and it is my job to drive the board, some of whom would always be resistant no matter what you wrote. I could put my name on a Strauss Waltz and %5 of any board would tell me after the concert that they hate modern music. I don’t advocate that music be tonal or notated along common practice norms, and the tips apply equally well or not at all (in my opinion) regardless of what kind of music you write. I couldn’t agree more with Kyle’s first piece of advice “Write such fucking incredible music that for a musician to ignore you would be career suicide.”

Note that I am careful not to say “use standard notation” or “use Italian terms,” but to use the simplest and most standard notation appropriate for your music, and to use Italian terms where possible. I do not begrudge Debussy or Mahler their French and German and neither would I or any other conductor begrudge you using English. I have simply observed over many years that, in general, you will get better, more accurate and more thoughtful performances of your pieces in a wider variety of performing environments if you, for instance, use Italian when it is adequate for getting your point across. If it is not adequate, don’t use it, but just ask yourself if ten years from now when your new piece is being recorded in Bulgaria by a Malaysian conductor, if you might have been better off using terminology that all the performers would understand. It’s your decision- if it is important to you to use English or Finnish or Russian, that’s fine- someone other than you will translate it when needed (probably into Italian!).

I knew full well when writing those tips (at the request of a composer on O-list- he asked the list for advice on getting your music played and I took the bait) that they would sound condescending to some and would simply annoy others, but all they are intended to be is one guy’s take on how to get as much of your music as possible performed as well as possible, and to hopefully make things a little easier for the composer who follows you into the same working situation. The etiquette tips have nothing to do with soothing the board or kissing up to the maestro- neither is a worthwhile goal- but with getting the most out of the time available and building a general sense of enthusiasm for new music in general and your music in particular, and, let me say it again, it has nothing to do with what kind of music you write.

There are two other statements I want to address- First is another from Kyle Gann “But I gather I would rather never write another orchestra piece than work with the organization Woods describes.”

Fair enough- there are better orchestras. However, I think that for a tiny organization to find funding for a composer-in-residence when the orchestra had previously played almost no contemporary music was a brave thing to do. Did we have to overcome a vocal and obstructionist minority to do it? Yes- which should be all the better indication that this was a group that wanted to do new music and was committed to it. I now regularly get suggestions from orchestral musicians of new projects they would like to see us pursue. Since 2003, when the original post was written, the group has premiered and commissioned several other pieces and has worked to help the composers who have collaborated with us find other performances and opportunities. As the orchestra gets better and the season expands, we’ll do more, but we can now confidently program new works knowing that doing so can bring in new listeners- for instance the visual arts community I described in the post who continue to be very supportive of new works even though their interest in “standard rep” may be minimal.

Finally, Samuel Vriezen says “and if you come to it with a specific esthetic program and are actively promoting it, they will hate you for it. Better be professionally bland. The orchestra is an institution that now stands for nothing…”
He was referring to my suggestion that composers not bring their dislikes to work. I do not believe that our musical culture is not like a gallery with limited space on the wall, and that one work displayed must push another into storage.  When an orchestra plays your piece, we are fighting for your aesthetic program, %100. You may be a Darmstadt modernist, and we will do everything we can to show the value of that outlook, but the next week we have to do the same for your minimalist colleague.

This does not mean we stand for nothing- it means we believe it is our job to play the music and make the strongest possible case for it, not to judge the music.(The only judging is in the decision to play it in the first place, and then whatever impact it has on musicians and audience at the end).  It is not that we don’t want you to advocate your program, we just have an ethos of trying to offer the next composer (whether that is Adams, Carter or Haydn) the same courtesy- and maybe orchestra musicians will resent it if they feel you’re not willing to offer all music a fair hearing. We want our audience to feel that every piece we program, including yours, is something we are passionately committed to and is worth their time and attention. Anytime someone forgets that, whether it is a board member slagging off your piece or you slagging off Beethoven, the power of the orchestra to bring art to life is dimmed in the eyes of the public. We want your ideas, and those of your colleagues, living and dead, to be heard- that’s why we got into this business.

Taking a cue from Kyle’s tips, might I suggest the following-
1-       Write incredible music (I thought that was a given)

2-       Remember that composition is both a creative art-form and a practical craft, and that you should excel in both areas, as you never know where one side ends and another begins. Solving a practical problem (figuring out the most idiomatic way of achieving your creative goals) is just as worthy use of your time as writing a bitchin’ tone row.

3-       Understand how performing organizations work, from practicalities of scheduling to nuances of etiquette, so you can maximize the results you get from every performance

4-       Don’t fuck it up for the next person.

UPDATE- There is also another discussion runing in the Northern Sounds forum, here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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14 comments on “The Sequanza 21 tips thread”

  1. cellohonkey

    It’s difficult to imagine anyone taking offense at such practical advice, especially the tips on idiomatic part writing. In my experience most orchestra musicians aren’t opposed to performing contemporary works in principle. The problem is that many parts are notated to be unnecessarily difficult, which usually makes learning a new work a real pain in the ass. Musicians get frustrated when the parts are difficult for no apparent reason, such as when the part is inaudible.

    Composers: If the sonic goal is a purposefully indistinct, burbling texture in the winds, don’t force the oboe to learn 100 measures of random 32nd notes in 7/8+11/12 time. Just notate the cluster of pitches, rhythm and ‘ad libitum nauseum’. If you want a quick, wild non-modal scale in the strings, you probably don’t have to notate every pitch either. Lots of special effects can be written out with non-standard notation.

    This isn’t to say that the composer can’t write difficult music–it just needs to be difficult for a reason (and not because that’s the only way you can get it to sound right in Finale).

  2. Pingback: Jason Heath’s Double Bass Blog » links for 2008-01-22

  3. Kenneth Woods

    There have been a few responses on Sequenza 21 to my comments. Kyle Gann, who is quoted above offers the following…..

    Comment from Kyle Gann
    Time: January 22, 2008, 1:10 am

    Mr. Woods, I won’t argue with your characterization of my remarks. But think about why we’ve reacted the way we have. You read my blog, but your orchestra is never going to play any of my music, nor probably that of any composer in this forum. And you’ve given us a list of really obviously dumb things that, IF your orchestra were ever going to play our music, we should avoid doing to keep from embarrassing you. Why would we find this rather demeaning hypothetical exercise entertaining? What composers need: advice on how to get an orchestra to notice us, how to get our foot in the door and get some music played. What we composers would like to see: an admission that orchestras and conductors do a TERRIBLE job of selecting what composers’ music to play. We’d like the people who run orchestras to admit that by taking recommendations from the same old good-old-boy network all the time they end up playing mostly the worst musical repertoire in the history of mankind, and 90 percent of their new repertoire from just a tiny number of names over and over ad nauseum – and maybe ask us how they could locate composers whose music is more interesting and even more playable and accessible and successful with audiences. Instead we get told to make sure our parts are readable – as if ANYONE in this forum has EVER handed an ensemble parts that weren’t readable, as if ANY of us has ever gone into an orchestra rehearsal badmouthing Schoenberg or anyone else, and as if any of us had a chance at your orchestra anyway. We’re all painfully aware that orchestras consider living composers a kind of scum only worth condescending to now and then, and your list of obvious no-nos does little more than hammer that fact home even harder. Instead of assuming we’re all antisocial malcontents who are likely to blow our big chance when and if we ever get it, why not give us some advice that would really help us get our music played?

  4. Erik K

    I confess to being moved to reply to Mr. Gann’s post, but it has only now occurred to me to address him as “GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNNNN!” Buried alive. BURIED ALIVE! Here’s what I wrote…I’m an asshole.

    “I’d warn him about what reactions he’d get, but commend him for at least being different.”

    I’m reminded of the “You non-conformists are all alike” bumper sticker. Applauding someone just for being different is like giving someone a Certificate of Achievement when the real winners got medals.

    “What we composers would like to see: an admission that orchestras and conductors do a TERRIBLE job of selecting what composers’ music to play.”

    Wait, like Brahms and whatnot? Or Sam Jones and whatnot?

    “…they end up playing mostly the worst musical repertoire in the history of mankind”

    Wait, seriously. Are we talking about Brahms?

    “What composers need: advice on how to get an orchestra to notice us, how to get our foot in the door and get some music played.”

    I’ve played dozens of new works for orchestra, and I would guess that over 75% of them come with Italian terms in tow. As a performer, it’s just what we’re accustomed to seeing.

    “…as if ANY of us has ever gone into an orchestra rehearsal badmouthing Schoenberg or anyone else.”

    I played a piece once where the composer spoke for about five minutes about how he viewed his music as “anti-Bruckner.” He was speaking strictly in terms of repetition and scoring, but the bottom line is I remember Bruckner, and I don’t remember his name or a thing about his “anti-Bruckner” music.

    “We’re all painfully aware that orchestras consider living composers a kind of scum only worth condescending to now and then.”

    But that’s just the way the game is played. As a composer, you’re at the mercy of the conductor. Is it right? Not at all. Is it fair? Even more not at all. But is it reality? Yes. If you have tips from a conductor who has observed certain trends over the years, it is certainly up to you to accept them or disregard them as you see fit. You can view them as the conductor “looking down on you.” But there are two things that must be kept in mind: 1) Taking a principled stance is terrific, and duly noted. I like principles as much as the next guy, but your Certificate of Achievement is in the mail. 2) Conductors will absolutely be looking down…at someone else’s score.

    Conductors have WAAAAAAAAY too much power. That is an absolute fact. But so does the IRS, and I still pay my taxes.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    I’ve read way too many tales of “unfortunately, the conductor of the premiere butchered the piece because he was too short sighted and clueless to realize that Elgar/Bruckner/Ravel/Boulez/ knew what they were doing.” I try to learn, rehearse and perform every new piece as if it were the greatest piece of music I had ever worked on. As far as I know, just about every performer I deal with how I respect takes the same approach, and it’s something we try to stress at the conducting workshop I teach.

    I can’t dispute that some conductors, orchestra managers or instrumentalists “consider living composers a kind of scum only worth condescending to now and then.” I can say with some confidence that they don’t think that way because they are conductors, orchestra managers or instrumentalists, but because they are assholes. Are there no assholes in the world of composers who think of conductors “a kind of scum only worth condescending to now and then?”

    Also- eventually the people who decide what gets played are those that pay the bills- the foundations, sponsors, punters and board members. I can try to be a tough minded advocate, but money talks. Give me a few grand to put the band together and anything is possible. Every conductor I know would do more new music if it were up to them, and we are constantly trying to bring in other advocates for new music- I return again to the visual arts model, where there is a BIGGER and more profitable audience for new and recent works than old ones. People who run galleries understand the value of new music, so we try to make them part of the equation at my band.

    Remember, this was written as advice for young composers- it may all sound obvious and tedius to Kyle because he is an experienced professional. I’ve seen countless young composers do their careers incalculable damage by missing crucial early career opportunities. Hear in Wales the BBC NOW does readings and workshops of student composers from the conservatory every year. Think of it- 2 hours, all of it recorded, on your piece by a major recording orchestra and top flight conductor, and more often than not, the time is spent correcting basic errors of craftsmanship or judgement. Instead of coming away with a polished CD of a piece you can give to orchestras all over the world ,you end up with a record of a missed opportunity. That might have been the one time in their life that a recording orchestra puts their music on tape.

    The sad news is that I don’t have much to add to the list that would help composers get there music played. In the current climate, doing everything brilliantly does not neccessarily lead to success, whether as a composer, conductor, soloist or orchestral musician. There are too few opportunities and too many obstacles for too many talented and deserving musicians.

    These days, the only sure way to move a career forward is to amass massive financial backing for yourself, whether through personal wealth, patronage or entreprenuial endeavor.


    Oh yes-
    Two quotes-
    “your orchestra is never going to play any of my music, nor probably that of any composer in this forum.”
    “I would rather never write another orchestra piece than work with the organization Woods describes.”

    So, which is it?

    I would have been honored to consider any piece by an established and accomplished composer like Kyle, and I try to look at every score I’m sent carefully. We are currently emphasizing collaboration with regional composers for a variety of reasons, but why wouldn’t I do a piece from someone at Sequenza? Nobody’s asked….

  6. Rob Deemer

    What bothers me about this whole tirade (that I unwittingly started by asking for your thoughts 😉 is not that these composers have been blasting away, because I would expect that from composers like Kyle and Elodie who have made their careers bucking the “system”, but that the other non-polemic composers don’t pipe up. The orchestra is still a viable mode of expression as is the opera, the wind band and the jazz ensemble, and as much as many composers would wish they went away (because they don’t play new music very much), it makes more sense to figure out ways of gradually nudging the beast in the direction of performing new music rather than just complaining about it.

    The whole episode would give a bystander the impression that these rants against the tyranny of the orchestra are typical of all composers, which would be a mistake. We all try to innovate and push new music forward in our own ways, but it’s how we relate on a personal level with the performers we work with which will dictate as much as anything how successful our careers become.

  7. Rob Deemer

    And if you would like to feature one or your trombonists, I’d be happy to send you a score of my trombone concerto that the US Army Orchestra premiered last year 🙂

  8. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Rob-

    Thanks again for being in touch! While there were not, perhaps, an army of composers leaping to my defence in the SQ21 thread, one has only to look at the comments for the original post to see that plenty have taken the time to give a shout out.

    I can’t resist pointing out that these two comments come from the same pen.

    “Neatness of the score and parts was low priority”

    “as if ANYONE in this forum has EVER handed an ensemble parts that weren’t readable”

    Well….. which is it?

  9. Kyle Gann

    “Neatness of the score and parts was low priority”

    “as if ANYONE in this forum has EVER handed an ensemble parts that weren’t readable”

    When writing for our own ensembles, the parts weren’t always neat, but they were *always* readable. Some composers never made a clean score because the parts were sufficient for performance.

    I don’t understand what you get from setting up such a chimerical straw man as the “irresponsible composer.” Every rehearsal I’ve had in my adult life, even for just solo flute, I’ve been there an hour early, setting up music stands, making sure music was OK. We composers are trained to do *everything* ourselves, because our music is never as important to anyone else as it is to us. We live for rehearsal, and never get enough of it. I carry extra sets of parts to every rehearsal, and post them on the internet in case they need to be downloaded in an emergency. Every composer I know lives this way. So are these tips about getting your parts in on time and showing up early for the rehearsal early based on actual experiences? If you know a composer who isn’t twice as solicitous about the logistics of his performance as any conductor or orchestra member, send him to a Sequenza 21 even and we’ll take turns kicking his butt.

    And maybe be a little sensitive to the idea that for a conductor to give these kind of tips to composers who can’t get the time of day from an orchestra is a little like the CEO of General Motors lecturing laid-off workers on how to be more industrious employees. Give us a tip on how to get the gig, and believe me, we’ll take care of the rest.

  10. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Kyle-

    Glad to be in dialogue.

    Yes, I’m afraid I have dealt with every “don’t” on the list more than once. Yes, I’ve seen parts come the day of the first rehearsal (or even after the first rehearsal, and dont get me started on publishers, who can be composers’ worst enemy). Yes, I’ve had emails with a list of 100 misprints that the author has just caught. It’s not common, but it does happen. That is not to say that I think of composers as less than professional- the fact is that you have to be 100% on the ball to survive at all, hence the admonition that composers, more so than anyone, can ill afford to make any non-musical mistake in dealing with orchestras.

    Finally, again- I was asked for the tips, and my only goal was to come up with the most helpful list I could. Should I not have answered the question to avoid the appearance of the GM exec?

    The one ommission from the list was really probably to develop facility in grant writing, outreach and organizational development. If you can get on the board of a community orchestra or a chamber series, you can also be an advocate.


  11. Samuel Vriezen

    Dear Ken, I see that the discussion is now splitting across forums – so if you don’t mind, I’ll repeat a bit of what I had to say in reply to your S21-version of this post. This one was in reply to what you wrote:

    I really didn’t want to come across quite that aggressive, because I fully believe you’re all for what you program. But to take up your gallery simile: musical culture as a whole may not be like a gallery, but the orchestra most definitely is.

    Indeed, your orchestra can play the minimalist AND the atonalist, and certainly if they’re Adams and Carter. They write what I would call classical music. But can it play Charlemagne Palestine, Christian Wolff, Horatiu Radulescu, Conlon Nancarrow, Brian Ferneyhough AND a Strauss waltz with the true waltz lilt? I find it hard even to imagine a specialized smaller ensemble that could do all of that.

    So my apologies if you perhaps felt attacked personally by my claim that the orchestra doesn’t stand for anything. With that, I meant that as an institution, its claim to musical centrality, its claim to be able to serve any aesthetic, makes it in fact ideological. Because the orchestra *does* have musical prejudices on the basis of its very history and performance tradition. The orchestra as such has a polemical stance of its own that is too rarely acknowledged. This lack of acknowledgement is what I really meant with the phrase ‘stands for nothing’ – which was perhaps not the sharpest choice of words.

    More specifically, as I put it on S21 in response to Rob Deemer:

    Rob: it’s not that you’re wrong, I think, and neither is Kenneth Woods. Within the limitations of working with conventional orchestras, it’s good advice. Certainly I do agree that time spent badmouthing is time lost rehearsing. But the point does go a little deeper. It’s perhaps easier to see my point if you contrast the way orchestras operate with how certain very specific new music ensembles operate. An ensemble such as Orkest De Volharding here in Amsterdam was originally *all* about stance and polemics, which went up from political activism down to the way phrases are to be articulated. Yes, you can play a note differently because you want to get away from style X or Y. In an ensemble like De Volharding, or, say, in any serious pop group, or in the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble, there is no note being played without stance. You just can’t play Wandelweiser music with a Carter performance attitude. You can’t play Michael Gordon with a Wandelweiser attitude. You can’t play Tom Johnson with a Ferneyhough mindset. etc, etc.

    Stance sometimes has to be articulated, and then ‘choosing sides’ can’t always be avoided. If there’s absolutely no space at all for such in orchestral rehearsal, then there may be a problem. Of course orchestral performance practice has assumptions and stance like any performance practice (basically Haydn-through-Mahler), only if you always have to avoid being polemical about it, then that means you can’t address it; which means the assumptions of classical music have become naturalized, their artificiality itself invisible: ideological.

    Which is also why no amount of new works of genius will ever change orchestral programming. It’s the dead guys first, second and third and the living guys about thirteenth, and this won’t change. Exceptions notwithstanding, but those are polemical orchestras – Kotik’s work for example.

    If I stress my points, it may be because I find it problematic how in general musical culture sometimes the professional standards of a certain style of music (such as, let’s call it “conductor music”) may set the standards for musical professionalism as a whole. Myself, I’ve hardly written a score for years, because my music is all parts and no central coordination. My work has gradually drifted quite far away from the kind of work that needs conducting. Which means I sometimes have had to do some extra explaining that what I do is still, in fact, serious composition.

    Then, you’re mostly talking about exactly the kind of music I hardly do these days; I hardly can even imagine working with an orchestra, so I suppose that relativizes the range of my point (but, come to think of it – an unconducted work for a self-organising orchestra? could be a very interesting challenge!)

  12. ComposerBastard

    Its all easy for me…I’ll put my first expression in italian and let them hack with it:

    “Tradurre prego le seguenti istruzioni musicali in italiano. Sto pagandoli rapidamente all’ora.”

    (Please translate the following musical instructions into Italian. I am paying you by the hour.)

  13. Kenneth Woods

    One other quickie

    Over at Sequenza it was pointed out that even Beethoven gave up on Italian and switched to German terms….

    True, but not entirely. His late piano music was eventually notated mostly with German instructions, but his orchestral music and quartets tended to be still primary (if not always) in Italian…..

    Have a look at the score of the 9th Symphony here….


    Compare that to this edition of the op 90 piano sonata (albeit in a bastardized Riccordi edition which already has translated much of the German into Italian)


    Could it be that he foresaw a simple, practical advantage in notating works for large forces in in the more univeral Italian, while he felt that in solo repertoire, when rehearsal time was not an issue, he could use the more personal German?

  14. ComposerBastard

    Dude…Beethoven never had an Apple Mac Book Pro or an iPod…I think English is like universal…like, you know…a smoking good language for meeting cool orchestra people and potential mates…right? Personal…it can apply to orchestra now…I am blown away by the flexibility of English

    Here are some:

    awesome but not too awesomely…

    little by little getting all bent out of shape…


    nuke it like you love your mama…

    get with it….

    flip out loudly

    …nice huh?

    I am not going to imitate the evil corporate forces of Starbucks and start using pretentious italian ever again

    grande, vente…cappuccino, expresso, latte, frappuchinno…


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