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.