Feb 26 2010

Your music is not your music

Published by at 11:40 am under inspiration,music,performance,process

Last week I traveled with Molly and Brian to SUNY Fredonia, where we talked with students, played in and coached rehearsals, and had a concert sponsored by the Ethos New Music Society which included several compositions of mine, as well as works by Per Boland and Lei Liang. Thanks to Rob Deemer for being a most excellent and generous host! It was really fun! We were a posse.

Here is Brian during sound check in the recital hall!

A highlight of the trip for me was working with the four student percussionists who performed “Coyote”. They practiced hard all year, guided by Dr. Kay Stonefelt, to prepare for this performance (did I mention that this piece is actually a BEAR to play?), and they did an outstanding job! Guitarist Jim Piorkowski also gave a lovely, thoughtful performance of “Luminoso”.

There was much talk about the composer-performer relationship – a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It is a more complex issue than the nuts and bolts of writing clear notation and understanding how an instrument works. The performer and composer are collaborating in the creation of a new work.

Working with performers is one of my favorite parts of the composition process. After spending weeks/months in semi-solitary confinement creating a new thing, I am SO ready to go out into the world for a dose of basic human contact, not to mention additional sets of eyes and ears on the work. Together we iron out the details, and as that happens the performer develops a personal approach to playing the music. It is incredibly satisfying when a performer brings something of themselves to a composition! For example, Jim P. plays the last section of “Luminoso” (a structured improvisation) with a sense of drama that is completely wonderful and surprising, while Ben unleashes his Inner Percussionist with an intensity that makes me worry slightly (!) about his guitar. Same piece, very different approaches, both awesome. The performer adds new layers of meaning and depth to the work.

For the composer this requires being open to interpretation. Literally! Letting go of the music enough to allow a musician to add their own voice to the mix. In my experience, when a performer asks, “Do you want this phrase played this way? Or that way?” sometimes they present options that I hadn’t considered, and sometimes those options are better than what I initially had in mind! Similarly, if there is a more efficient way to achieve that double/triple/quadruple stop, or that harmonic, than what I have written, I see no reason not to change it. The score is a means to an end. Don’t get me wrong – I am very attached to my compositions. VERY. They are extremely personal to me, and I know how I want them to be. At the same time, I understand that when the score leaves my hands, it’s not totally mine anymore – I am entering into a partnership, and the best thing I can do is be open to how that might unfold.

To make a little, er, structured improvisation on the words of Kahlil Gibran:

Your music is not your music….once in my hands it is mine…..once in the ears of the audience it is theirs!

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Your music is not your music”

  1. Corey Dargel says:

    Your music is not your music… once in my hands it is mine…

    What a ridiculous assertion! A composer’s music does not become the performer’s music after it’s been handed over. The performer doesn’t have free reign to interpret the music however s/he wants. I think composers should be careful not to downplay their roles in the process of music-making. A composer/performer relationship should be cooperative, but calling it “collaborative” goes a bit too far. If it’s truly collaborative, then the performer should be credited as co-composer.

  2. Alex says:

    Corey, I’m sorry you think this is ridiculous. I am absolutely not downplaying the role of the composer in the music-making process, and I never said the music ceases to be the composer’s when it is being performed, nor that the performer can interpret the music however s/he wants. All I’m saying is that it benefits the composer to be open to performer comment and/or suggestion, because often this can be very helpful. It is at that point in the process when collaboration comes into play for me. If you prefer the term cooperation, fine.

    Perhaps you have a different view of things because you perform most of your own music, so you are able to stay more physically connected to it from start to finish. I generally do not perform my own music, so when it hits the stage I have to feel that I have done everything possible to effectively communicate my musical ideas to the performer – who is translating for the audience – and then let it happen.

  3. Brian says:

    @Corey I think what Alex was trying to convey is actually two things:

    1) During the actual composition process, it’s good for a composer to work closely with a performer so that (s)he can best understand the performers’ instrument, what it can and can’t do, and also if that particular performer has any unique sonic vocabulary that the composer could incorporate into the work. I know that there’ve been times when I’ve wished that I’d been consulted on specific saxophone-y things before I received a piece. And…

    2) That by developing a relationship with a performer during the composition process, there is a mutual respect and trust built between both parties. The performer will want to do his/her best to honor the composer’s wishes, and the composer is willing to give a little artistic latitude when it comes to the performing of the work.

  4. Corey Dargel says:

    I was reacting to what you wrote. I thought you did in fact say that the composer’s music ceases to be the composer’s (“Your music is not yours…”). Maybe I misunderstood, or took too much meaning from what was meant to be a more esoteric statement.

    I do think the meaning of the word “collaboration” has been weakened by overuse, but that is only tangential to the argument you’re making.

    Please carry on!

  5. C.S. Rusnak says:

    I find collaboration and interpretation different experiences.

    In regard to interpretation, I not only agree, but I find it difficult to find performers who can or are willing to go there; they’ve been trained as mere technicians. To capture the flow, the feeling of a piece accurately in notation is most difficult. Last week a pianist performed my work “Dusk” — not a complex piece, but full of nuance. After a couple of struggling rehearsals, she finally understood, that my notation is not an exact instruction manual, but a guide to how to FEEL the piece – to make it HER Dusk. The performance was stellar.

    I’m doing my first commission for specific persons. I am definitely doing all the composing. However, this ensemble has specific techniques and personalities. I want to make sure I highlight their talents. Without the collaborative dialog, there is no way I can do so. I have never played their instruments. The leader is also a skilled orchestrator with more experience than I have. I would be foolish to not maximize my learning from his input. I am the composer, but the piece will be dedicated to the ensemble. So far, I am loving this process.

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