Alfred Brendel – Photo by Betty Freeman

Performers as Co-Composers

I am not a governess who treats the composer like a child and tells him what he should compose. I try to understand what he has written down. I look at the composer like a father, and I look at his music with loving but critical eyes.

– Alfred Brendel, 13 September 2005, Interview with NPR

As an undergraduate, I had a great deal of admiration for Mr. Brendel. In his writings and recordings he seemed to uphold the ideal that the performer is in service to the score and composer, and must do his or her best to faithfully transmit the music to the audience. The opposite of this approach is the selfish performer, who believes that he or she knows better than the composer how to best bring the music to life. Such performers upstage the composer and do so without any compunction.

Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that it would take sort of some sort of spiritual possession for a performer to be a a perfect conduit of the composer’s intentions (and I don’t quite think that’s Brendel’s ideal). But what really brought me away from Brendel’s line of thinking was a discussion on creativity in grad school.

Alfred Brendel - Photo by Betty Freeman

Alfred Brendel - Photo by Betty Freeman

For the majority of our time together in that particular class period, composers dominated this discussion on creativity, and I and my performance colleagues were content to listen and learn from what they had to say. After most of the discussion was completed, the professor chided the performers in the group for not saying more. She was quite adamant that as performers we were equally involved in the creative process, though I had not seen myself in that light.

I could be mistaken, and it could be that I sided with Brendel for so long, but I think this is a relatively common perception. Composers are often viewed as the creative force behind the music while performers are the executors (the “jocks” of the music world). But in many ways performers must be creative. Even detailed scores are inevitably ambiguous (I’ve never seen a decibel level on a score before, only vague descriptions of loud and soft). Composers may generate notes and ideas from the aether, but performers are tasked with bringing those ideas to life. This is not mere translation.

How then should the composer-performer dynamic be viewed? I cannot see myself as a mere child in this relationship, as Brendel seems to imply, nor could I see this relationship as one where the performer is dominant. So I would like to propose a middle ground between these extremes in which the performer is an equal partner with the composer in the creation of the music—where the performer is a “co-composer.”



Now, I am not suggesting that performers freely add or subtract notes or simply improvise on a given score; that’s the performer dominance, which is not useful. No, instead I use the term as a way to challenge the way the composers view performers and how they notate scores. I think that most performers are candid enough to realize that despite their best attempts to be faithful to a piece of music, the performance is inevitably theirs, the interpretive decisions theirs, and their personality present. Composers, on the other hand, might have a much more difficult time with the concept, and I can’t blame them.

I think a big part of it comes down to trust. Do composers trust that their music can survive a variety of interpretations? Do they trust performers enough to let them bring their own ideas to the table? Do they trust that perhaps there is not a single “right way” for their music to be performed?

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for a composer to hear a truly bad performance of their music (I’m no doubt guilty of this). I may contend that there is no particular “right” interpretation with most compositions, but I’ve certainly heard wrong. We performers have it so easy—we play the repertoire we want the way we want to; the composer can only sit there and hope things go well. It is little wonder that a composer might wish to control performances as much as possible, but I fear that little is gained through such attempts.

Kyle Gann wrote a fascinating post titled “The Case Against Over-Notation: A Defense and Diatribe,” which delves into this particular topic well. I would suggest that every composer read it (even if it is a “diatribe”). Gann argues that notation, even at its best, is still extraordinarly limited, and that can be a difficult concept to embrace. One solution (aside from finding better performers… and isn’t that always the goal?), would be to try what David Smooke suggests in his post, “Adding by Subtracting.”

Smooke advises going back through a score and eliminating potentially unnecessary notes as a stage in the composition process. I would suggest doing the same with performance indications. Composers might try to discover what indications are an integral aspect of their music and which aren’t. There is certainly a risk with this approach, but there is also the chance that a performer might illuminate something wonderful in the music that the composer didn’t know was there, and that is when the music takes on a life of its own.

I would like to leave you, then, with some of my favorite performance indications. These certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for most music, but as a performer I get excited every time I read them. There is a lot of trust in these words, and I work very hard to make sure that trust is not misplaced.

Pedal is indicated only where necessary; however, free use is recommended. In particular, use half or quarter pedal for fading over sound events within the framework of the sound areas in order to bring out all the resonances of the individual piece and of the instrument.

For the same reasons of an individual’s choice, the dynamics of each piece are also only sketched in. The player should use every opportunity to intensify sound color and to guide the harmonic course and the shape of the piece.

Again, the duration of the individual pieces depends on the artistic capability of the player. It is up to the player’s creativity to introduce the sound figures which are to be repeated with such diversity that their nature develops freely.

Metronome markings may be interpreted freely.

-Hans Otte (1926-2007), Das Buch der Klänge (1979-82)

R. Andrew Lee is an avid performer of minimalist and postminimalist piano music and records for Irritable Hedgehog Music. Follow him on twitter: @andyleedma.

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  • Solange Turner-Carlton

    I believe the artist should PLAY and not presume artistic license as critic of the composer’s work unless it is for a commedia dell’arte, as beautifully narrated in the legendary pigeons of Lelio, by Berlioz..

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  • I love the relationship between composer and performer. But I often cringe to think that anyone knows “better” than a composer. If we are dealing with tropes and cultural expectations in music, then I understand how others can interpret intention. I also agree that if a composer doesn’t use dynamics and articulation then a performer is compelled to “add-in”. Perhaps the right thing to do is discuss with the composer your ideas, if they’re alive. I certainly appreciate ideas from performers and most of the time go with their ideas, but to alter what has been stated in the music can be reckless. I do take slight issue with the title Co-Composer. Is the word Performer not sufficient to describe someone as creative?

  • Thomas Deneuville

    Thank you for your comment Paul.

    Reading what you have to say, I felt that your second line actually answered the first… Indeed if one acknowledges the creativity involved in playing an instrument, then shouldn’t one let some room for its expression? A composer that is (too?) specific about the performance of a piece might end up negating the sensibility of the human being that is in charge of performing it.

  • i don’t think this is rocket science – if the score shows the composer went to great pains to be specific, then let the musician follow it – if not, then let the musician take the extra leash he/she has been given

    and besides, there is certainly enough creativity involved in playing an instrument that should not be downplayed in comparison to the creativity of composing music

  • Thanks for your great comments, Susan. I think when you refer to structured improvisation, that is a lot of what you get with the Hans Otte pieces. All the notes are there, but by allowing the performer to sometimes choose the order of units and almost always the number of repetitions, there is a freshness with each performance. I absolutely adore the experience. Sadly, improvisation has fallen by the wayside in classical training, but even this little taste (as well as Dennis Johnson’s November) makes me curious to explore it more. The immediacy can be intoxicating after years of working on music that seems so concrete. :)

  • So much to think about here, even for those of us who come to the issue solely as listeners. Does one’s view as a performer depend upon the music you are playing? If it is Bach, where you must rely on what he left to us—and what the researchers of various stripes have uncovered—or if it is Judd Greenstein, who is here, right now, so that a conversation about intentions and performance is possible directly? I would be interested to know your view. I pass on three things that occur to me as I read this post: First, I think of Andrea La Rose, who has commented on, and who puts into action, the importance of improvisation as part of classical music performance. Second, I think of “structured improvisation,” a concept to which I was introduced by Dylan Mattingly’s Gravity and Grace. There was a freshness, an immediacy, to this music that seemed directly related to the composer-performer collaboration. Last, I think of Companion Star (the creation of Michael Douglas-Jones), which turns the entire creative process into a collaborative venture with what seems to be, from the snippets I’ve so far heard, marvelous results. I don’t know what to conclude, but it seems to me there are riches to mine here.

  • Thank you for your comments, Denis. It’s always nice to get a perspective from the other arts. I also didn’t know that Brendel was a poet. I’ve several of his recordings and have read a good portion of his essays, but somehow missed (completely forgot?) that. Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Denis Joe

    A fascinating article and one that I find personally pertinent. I am not a musical composer but I am a poet. Last month a dramatisation of 24 of my poems, from a series of 100, was staged at The Bluecoat gallery in Liverpool. When composing them I used a particular form based on traditional Japanese metre (5 and 7 syllables). Like notation in music each line is written as it is supposed to be delivered. The idea for the play was that of the director, Paula Currie and the actors were drawn from members of the Spider Project.

    Whilst my initial response was one of delight, that was tempered by the fact that someone, other than me, was going to deliver those poems and I wrote them to be spoken in a particular manner. Paula asked me, on a few occasions, if I would attend some of the rehearsals. I refused because I did not want to end up saying how the poems should be delivered and though I attended one rehearsal. I had no idea how the whole piece would be shaped.

    The first time I saw it was at the premiere and it was a revelation. True, the line breaks were not always respected and some were delivered quicker or slower than I envisaged. But along with Paula’s staging, the poems were given a life that I had not considered and the whole event was outstanding.

    What I learned from this is that a piece of art is never finished and that re-interpretation can only help to improve the work. I think that there is nothing for the creator of a piece to be scared of, S/he has already ‘handed over’ the piece to the public, who will, invariably, see in it something different from the composer’s intent. So why should the performer not also act as an interpreter? I like the fact that Andrew see that there is a solution, in which everyone wins. If the work is so precious then the artist should keep it to themselves rather than issue it to an audience.

    By the way, Brendel was also a very fine poet.