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Composers And Performers: Making A New Story

by Robin L. ye

What is the relationship between composers and performers? One of collaboration and co-operation, says one of our composers

I am a composer who is also a performer. I am an improvisational musician, too. Playing jazz for a long time, especially in a highly improvisational environment has taught me to respect the contributions of musicians to music, even if they haven't composed it. When I write something, I don't just give it to a performer or group of performers and expect it to be played back as if I have programmed some machine, perhaps expecting to fine tune it when I hear it played at rehearsal. I'd like to think that musicians are not automatons for musical playback, but people with thoughts and ideas, feelings, likes and dislikes, and with their own stories to bring to the music they play.

Unless the composer is also the only performer of a work, the performance becomes a collaboration. The composer and the performer(s) have decided to accept the integrity of the work and to strive for a realisation of that work that reflects its integrity.. They also enter into a dialogue about the work and its integrity. The dialogue may be verbal: discussion between performer(s) and the composer ranging across all aspects of the music. Needless to say, not everyone will have something verbal to say about the work, and this verbal discussion is hardly mandatory. Being musicians, though, the "dialogue" could consist of other kinds of reflection. The player(s) and the composer, once in dialogue bring their "stories" to the work and use them as the bases of reflection upon the performance of the work. The performance, in practise, rehearsal, and the public performance or recording then stimulates reflection. It is likely that this process will continue and be passed on to those who encounter the work after this particular performance event.

The process might not result in changes to the work (though it's not ruled out). What is hoped for is an ongoing process of playing the work and reflecting upon the work. Can this process lead to disagreement? Certainly, but acting in good will and for the integrity of the work, disagreements can be overcome, or got round. It would be against the spirit of this process to make too many perameters, or to come to the process ready to draw lines in the sand. Again, as all involved engage in the process more or less freely, and it is agreed that the goal is the performance of the work and the upholding of the integrity of the work, confrontations would likely be avoided. I can see a difficulty with this process in the case of large ensembles with conductors or directors. Though speaking for myself, I don't mind sixty to a hundred or so people being engaged in the process. However, the organisational structure of the ensemble and the leadership position of the conductor would likely preclude this approach on that scale.

Can the process break down? Certainly. In that case, if the performance must go on, some agreement on continuing should be arranged. This may mean deferring to the composer's vision of the work. It may mean that the performer(s) if not able to adhere to that vision, do the best they can, according to their lights and skills. It may mean abandoning the performance. However, I believe that great things are possible if people act in good faith.

Working together, composers and performers can make great music. Reflecting upon what is played, and playing upon reflections gained can can make a work more than just the efforts of a composer and a performance. Players bring the wisdom of their stories to their performances; composers are fools to ignore this. A composer brings a story, too: one of a fresh view of music and musical possibilities. Through the ongoing process of reflection and performance, the stories of the performer(s) become part of the story of the work. The story that is the work becomes part of the story or stories of the performer(s). The work, and each performance enrich the story.

Does this "work" with dead composers? I think it can. Of course, we hear from them through their quoted words (without full knowledge of context) and through the mediation of their biographers, and, of course, their music. Without trying to turn the playing of a work into a musicological excercise, requiring the services of an academic, performers can still share their stories with one another, and through the process of reflection and playing, they will come to know older works better, too, and have an encounter with the composer as well.

Robin L. ye is a composer, performer, and writer, and the founder of Torcroft Press.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.