Tuesday, October 14, 2014


I do quite a bit of transcribing of music using the computer programme, Sibelius. Transcriptions from printed copies or manuscripts are usually made so they can be transposed into another key. Sibelius, overall, makes the job very easy. I wish I'd had the programme when I was young and was first writing music, but of course at that stage there were no computers, let alone programmes like Sibelius. I often dreamed then of having a typewriter which you could use to print music, but the idea remained a pipe dream.

Anyway, the job of transcribing is generally pretty straightforward, except when you come across a piece of music that is so heavily marked by the composer with instructions as to how to sing or play the piece that you wonder whether he was having a bit of a fit on the day he wrote it.

A case in point is the piece I'm doing at the moment, Nocturne, by Michael Head, from a series of four songs under the general title of The Rim of the Moon. I really enjoy Head's music: it's a delight to play and the vocal lines are usually top notch, lying well for the singers.

Nocturne is a bit different. It's more dramatic in style than most of Head's work (though he settles down into his usual mode late in the piece). Consequently he's marked it very heavily, even with some contradictory markings. In one place the pianist is supposed to increase in volume when there's not actually anything to play. In another the tempo is marked both a tempo (go back to the original tempo) as well as Poco piu mosso (go a little faster). It's not actually possible to do that, as I'm sure Mr Head knew. Perhaps an editor got hold of the music and overwhelmed it with markings according to some reasoning we're no longer party to.

Half the notes in the vocal line and in the piano part are given stress marks. If you obeyed every one you'd never get to the end of the piece. And if there aren't stress marks there are accents, the sort that indicate you should give the note more weight than usual. There's a molto rit when the piece has barely started, and a poco rit only two bars after the a tempo. The singer, at one point, is expected to both return to a tempo and sing con moto simultaneously, which is rather like coming back to your normal walking pace while trying to go faster.

The first half or more of the piece is in a kind of recitativo style (that's indicated as well). So there is some excuse for giving the singer an indication of where to move forward and where to pull back. But most singers would do these things instinctively, and the excess of markings merely get in the way. IMHO.

It's like getting a play script from the director in which he's gone through and marked how you should stress each word, speak each phrase, where you should breathe, how loud you should be here and soft there. The lines of the original script would be buried beneath all of these markings.

Transcribing Mr Head's song would be fine except that as the transcriber I'm supposed to make sure I include all these extra details. I'm greatly tempted to leave them out, though of course that would mean not doing the job properly. It's very possible I'll miss one or two, even after a thorough proof-reading. But I'll grit my teeth and do my best.

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