Composer-performer collaboration: Letting go when we’re dead

View from my deskToday’s post was inspired by a couple of tweets by the pianist John Mannos from June 2011. He’s no longer on Twitter so I can’t link to his account, but what he wrote was this:

Oh, to get inside the minds of these great composers to know precisely what they wanted! How to play the accents? Phrases? !!!!!!!!!

I suppose that is the alluring beauty of playing a work by a deceased have faith that your performance renders his art perfectly

I do understand what Mannos is aiming for, but given the impossibility of ever knowing whether you’ve “got it right”, I feel a different view is more valuable, both for the living performer and for the composer, represented only by the score.

These days, composers can choose whether they want pixel-perfection: they can take the option of writing directly to audio, bypassing the score entirely. Or they can choose to write music for other people to play. People with opinions, ideas, limitations of technique, the whole package.

But this is a recent development. Composers of the past had no option but to write music to be performed by real human musicians. Whether that musician was the composer or someone else, ultimately the notes on the page needed to be turned into sound by a – fallible – person. I feel that the idea of a piece being rendered perfectly would have had little meaning for them, or if it did, it would be no more than an idle fancy.

When you write for performers, you are starting a collaboration. And that goes whether or not you had any chance to choose perfection.

As composers, we create things which, sooner or later, we will leave behind. We have no power over what becomes of them, regardless of how many increasingly specific notations and remarks we litter our scores with. At some point our collaborators will have more say than we will, so we need to accept – as I suspect many of our forebears did, lacking any other model – that there comes a point where we just need to let go and let the new collaboration happen.

And for performers, this is a fantastic chance. It’s an opportunity to work *with* Bach, *with* Stravinsky. Of course, study to understand the composer’s viewpoint is vital – you can’t truly collaborate with a person you don’t know. But it’s only the first step. From understanding what they’ve written, you need to make it your own – they are no longer Beethoven’s accents, Sibelius’ phrases – they’re yours.

For my own part, I don’t want perfection. Sure, I’d like to have the right notes played in the right order at the right speed, but I want it to sound real, human. I want to find out what other people can bring to my work, the nuances they can bring out that I didn’t know were there. I want them to have ideas, test them out and bring them to life.

Obviously, this is what great performers have been doing forever, but it disturbs me that this idea of the dead composer as oracle still persists. They did exactly what we do. Or rather, we do exactly what they did. No mystery, just hard work.

A score is not a piece of music. A score is just notes. It is not sacred, not perfect. It is an incomplete thing, requiring human collaboration to make it live.

What’s your opinion? Do you think we should seek perfection or new interpretations? Or take another approach altogether? Add your rant to the comments!

7 Replies to “Composer-performer collaboration: Letting go when we’re dead”

  1. When I write a piece, I think of it as providing a structure filled with opportunities for the performers. In rehearsal I often hear a performer discover something that I had missed, and sometimes this leads to a bit of revision. As a performer, I sometimes feel that the composer made a mistake or missed an opportunity. Composers and performers need this collaboration to effectively mine the riches of sound and time.

  2. I believe music is a creative more than a reproductive art. No two performances should be the same. And I think different interpretations just add to the value of the music- surely a fine composition, like a fine poem, will have layers to unfurl depending on your own perspective; surely you can revisit and find something more, or something different. A piece of music isn't a butterfly with a pin through its heart.

    And this is why the AMEB used to drive me mad! What's with the religion of never using the sustain pedal with Bach? Why not add a dimension? For god's sake, wouldn't he have experimented with it if he had it at his disposal? People need to be a little less up themselves. Music is essentially an improvisatory thing, not a sacred static image to be worshipped.

  3. It's always instructive to listen to Radio 3's 'Building a Library' and hear identical passages played in different ways, often with equally convincing results. That said, I do feel the composer should give the performer as much guidance and as many indications as possible in the score to ensure her/his intentions are clear and not an invitation to the equivalent of a musical seance. I have come across a fair number of amateur composers who leave out dynamics, expression marks and even tempi indications and when quizzed have said that they prefer to leave these aspects to the performer's judgement. That approach IMHO is simply ludicrous – it's like writing a letter without any punctuation!

    1. I confess I’ve been a culprit of leaving things up to the performer myself. I try not to do it too much now 🙂 But yes, intention is the key – if a composer’s intention is for the performer to take full creative control of that aspect, then it’s fine to leave it out (although I would try to make that entirely clear in the notes); if it’s something they’ve skipped because they’re not sure what to do, then it would probably be better to at least include a text description. My string quintet Thickets has vaguish tempo directions, with metronome markings in the notes only, because it’s designed for amateur players and, given the complexities of the score, I wanted the performers to capture the buoyant feel of the music more than I wanted them to hit a specific tempo. This way, the ideal metronome marking is available if they want to work to that, but an accurate performance can still happen at a slower tempo too.

  4. If Beethoven's Fifth were played the same way every time it would be Oh So Dull. But that symphony now has a life of its own, released from Beethoven's supervision. Sometimes I write a piece and then get to know it better, and develop my performance of it. I sometimes even notice new things about it: the same thing is happening – it has a life of its own. Not that I dare to compare myself with Beethoven, but any well-written piece should be the same once released from the composing process (which is only the first phase of the creative process). @Cedric: if composers want to leave things to performers' judgements, that's up to them, but they then can't complain if the performers don't play it as they intended. Again a good piece should be capable of many different interpretations, so it could be OK. But I do agree with you that it is helpful to have enough indications to grasp the composer's intention.

    1. Yes, I agree – pieces really do take on a life of their own. I know that a lot of my music seems to have formed itself – it wants to do this, or not do that – my last piece just decided to modulate without my permission and the next thing I knew I was in D minor! They really are more like children than things! And that’s the exciting thing with composition too – it doesn’t just stop when you hit Print and send off the score. It continues to change for as long as the piece is being performed.

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