Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Performer's Paradox

In our reading for this week, Cook quotes both Mozart and Beethoven in regards to their view on notating their compositions. Both methods were remarkably similar, in that they would hear the composition in full in their head, manipulate and adjust, and then begin physically writing it down on paper. The experimentation happened mostly before taking the pen to the paper.

He also discusses the limitations on musical notation. As an assignment for a class I am in with Dr. Evans (Analysis Toward Performance), I had to transcribe a sentence into musical notation, while paying particular attention to rhythms and speech contours. I found it quite difficult to find an accurate way to capture the rhythm of my actual speech. We don't think about note patterns or durations or whether or not we speak in triplets when we are having a conversation or reading aloud. I feel like this is how creating music is for some composers, at least to start. I am no composer, and would even go so far as to say I have an aversion to attempting to write music form scratch. I think part of that has to do with the challenge of writing it down.

It is interesting to think about the composer vs the performer. A composer has to deal with the charge of writing their pieces out and differentiating between a quarter or an eight note... trying to find the exact notation to document their ideas. While we as performers are challenged with interpreting the language on the page, trying to get into the composers mind, and get the music into out own head. The music takes the path out of one's brain, to a paper, from the paper, and into another's brain. I had never really thought about music in that direct way.

Does this mean singer/songwriters have an advantage? Do composers who perform their own music trump those who don't have to overcome that boundary of notation? What does it mean if you love to perform the music of others, but never want to come up with your own?


Billy O. said...

I definitely feel as though singers/songwriters have an advantage over people who perform the works of others. But I also think that it is not as much of an advantage as we might think. It can be daunting as a performer to play other people's works because it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to know exactly what is in their minds. This is a task that is even harder for classical musicians because so many of our composers have been dead for so long and we don't have much more than the marking on the music and maybe a few letters on how their music should be performed. But one thing that we have been talking about in a class of mine (Survey of Symphonic Literature) is that the most important thing to most composers isn't necessarily phrasing that isn't notated but playing the correct tempos. Beethoven wrote a letter to his editor that basically said that he heard one of his premiers went well and that was because they played the tempos he set. Composers have the power to prevent the performer from doing something expression-wise by setting the tempo at a speed where that certain technique cannot be done properly. So, in short I feel that we have a slight uphill battle to try and understand what composers want but they are able to convey enough to get us on the right track and then trust our instincts.

Olga.K said...

I agree with Billy on the tempo aspect. From my personal experience, working with composers (those who are still alive) gave me a very clear idea of what they expect from the performer. That was rhythm and tempo. Sometimes, in a difficult passages they would even say "I don't care if you play the right notes, all I need is the right timing".

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