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A discussion on this topic at http://composersforum.ning.com/forum/topics/sonata-for-duo-cello was recently curtailed so I thought I shold clarify myself for anyone else writing for cello.

The highest note that is reasonable to writw for is E6. This is the highest possible fingered note on most cellos ignoring extended techniques which would still render Alis piece unplayable. Cellos vary of course so a slightly longer fingerboard here and there may permit an F and very very occasionally an F# but the point is that these notes are so close together and so infrequently written for that risks are attached to such writing. Unless you personally know specialist cellits assume a safe standard of ability and range. Working from theoretcal diagrams and concepts is best tempered with reality. If the music is to be played live then this must be beared in mind. And if the music is to exist digitally on low quality samples I question why an impossible instruent was chosen.

I did not think I was being insulting by pointing out the limits of an instrument to help a composer but the response suggests otherise.

Is the.re a sub forum we can use to discuss instruments? I dont see one.

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My feelings are that a new(ish) composer would soon find out what's playable and not if it came to performance. The work about which you're talking would need "quartet" standard of performers for at least some of it. Were I in this composers' situation, if the performer said "can't be done" then I'd transpose the passage down to a point where it can be played and make other adaptations as necessary. Without a score I couldn't see if two cellos playing harmonics alternately could do it. Perhaps an adaptation could be made along those lines.

We have to remember Julian Bream telling Britten that a combination of notes was impossible to play on the guitar (Britten's Nocturnal, IIRC), whereon Britten said, "Then imagine it."

In any event, encouragement and advice are important. If a new composer chooses not to take the advice that's their choice and they may have a surprise trying for a performance. So pointing something out is fine - I've done it - but left it there.

As I see it.

I mentioned to Ali in his Duo for Cello thread that it seemed that there would be playability issues and he didn't seem concerned and why should he be?  If we are writing in a baroque style everyone would expect the parts to be conservative and traditional and any errors would be just that, errors.  But Ali's piece is obviously pushing the envelope and such material will inevitably become a negotiation between the composer and potential performers. A composer shouldn't, in my opinion, limit him/her self in any way because none of us really know what some creative performer might suggest in lieu of an "unplayable" part.

That said, knowledgeable criticism from a fellow composer should be welcomed if not embraced, so thank you Charles for letting us discuss this.

Psh. The main risk of writing so high is that the performers will simply fail to hit the correct pitches. But the very high fragments in Ali's piece aren't a sublime melody that requires precise intonation, they're an ugly shred at a somewhat fast pace, I think he even pointed that out himself somewhere. If I were him I would throw quarter tones into the mix to make the message even clearer: pitches change here, but don't bother trying to figure out what they are, you won't succeed anyway, just go nuts.

Think Ferneyhough's string quartets - nobody in their right mind counts all those subdivisions, they're just a, let's say, artistic way of saying "you guys try real hard to make the rhythm sound trippy and disjointed, thank you".

I'm sure your advice was well intentioned and it should definitely benefit other composers out there who choose to write for cello but prefer their music less crazy. In the meantime, the crazy can do their thing :)

A somewhat relevant anecdote: during my student years a friend of mine had a piece that featured a viola with scordatura, it varied a little but all strings were tuned +/- a 9th down. It allowed for some very low notes (which, by the way, sounded out of this world - loose strings have their own distinct tone, and besides, just a little bow pressure makes them rest on the fingerboard, changing the sound even more; fun stuff, try it at home). Now imagine asking a "real violist" if those notes are in the instrument's range. They'd probably slap their forehead in exasperation.

It is worth mentioning Greg that Ali edited at least one comment after I replied to it. This gies the impression I was ignoring his intent when in fact he only explained it after I voiced my concerns. Intonation is exactly the problem along with impossible fingered notes and I said as much.

Knowledge of an instrument is essential to push its boundaries. We can agree on that perhaps! Ali is working from a diagram. I feel on a forum with so many beginners myself included! in many ways! that addressing issues is vital. If a composer found that discussion they might come away thinking F# is a safe limit to write. That is anothe reason I bring it up Dane and Ingo. Not every coposer is experimental and technology allows us to write at the limits or beyond what is possible for humans without realising UNLESSit is pointed out :) In this case F# is not an option on most cellos and notes that high could not be intonated easily. Something every composer should know and not be defensive when told.

Thats a great sounding example re violas Greg but its a little different example. Tuning down creates less problems than playing into the extreme high register.

Whenever I compose for an unfamiliar instrument, I go on Wikipedia and look up the top and bottom note of the instrument and try to avoid the extreme notes on either end for the most part. Incidentally, Finale has a nifty feature called "out of range notes," where you can have the software identify for you notes which are unplayable (the program highlights them in yellow if you enter them). You can set it to beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Another consideration: I was recently watching a YouTube of a composer talking about writing in the extreme upper range of one of the brass instruments (I think it was the trumpet) and he said that when you get to the top range of the instrument, the sound starts to thin out and he hadn't realized that until he heard an actual performer play it. On this very board I once posted a piece for French horn, and another composer pointed out that in the lower ranges, it starts to come across "a little poot-y" as he put it. Software doesn't reveal this, so it's important to take those life lessons, if you are lucky enough to get them, to heart.

I think I'll have to sit out for a while. This is a one-sided continuation of exchanges between Charles and Ali, thinly veiled as a discussion about how much a composer should know about an instrument before writing for it. Were I Ali, I have to confess I'd be put off by the labouring of the point. Can't we leave persons/personalities out now?

Charles Holt said:

It is worth mentioning Greg that Ali edited at least one comment after I replied to it. This gies the impression I was ignoring his intent when in fact he only explained it after I voiced my concerns. Intonation is exactly the problem along with impossible fingered notes and I said as much.

Knowledge of an instrument is essential to push its boundaries. We can agree on that perhaps! Ali is working from a diagram. I feel on a forum with so many beginners myself included! in many ways! that addressing issues is vital. If a composer found that discussion they might come away thinking F# is a safe limit to write. That is anothe reason I bring it up Dane and Ingo. Not every coposer is experimental and technology allows us to write at the limits or beyond what is possible for humans without realising UNLESSit is pointed out :) In this case F# is not an option on most cellos and notes that high could not be intonated easily. Something every composer should know and not be defensive when told.

Thats a great sounding example re violas Greg but its a little different example. Tuning down creates less problems than playing into the extreme high register.

Great idea. I once wrote a cello sonata and gave it to a member of the Portland Symphony. He said it contained some very high notes. I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure I had an F in there. I have been careful ever since with high cello notes. 

I think new/amateur composers (I fall into the second category at this point) should have a trusted reference handy. Gav's method is fine. I prefer my copy of Piston's Orchestration. Often such materials will list both a normal as well as exceptional range. If you stay in the normal range you can be sure of being on solid ground. If you venture beyond it, it may be wise to double with another instrument, or transfer the high notes to another instrument. If the violas aren't playing at the time, I will use them. But this is of course much easier in an orchestral score, where you can get away with things like that. In a chamber work the options are more limited. 

It's not usually a problem to rework things so that the piece will be playable. In Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, I hear performances where at a a particular point the clarinet goes a bit lower than I hear on other performances. I figure this is because most clarinetists will play it on a Bb clarinet. Mozart probably wrote it for an A clarinet, which goes down to C# (written) on the bass clef. That note is one note too low for the Bb clarinet, so the player simply ignores the short triplet section that contains the unplayable note. The result is fine. There is a little rest where the triplet would be, but who cares? It sounds good both ways. Composers need to be flexible on such matters.

Dane Aubrun said:

Can't we leave persons/personalities out 

Edit to above post. I meant C# actual sound, not C# written. 

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