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Performer-Composer Dialogues in Contemporary Music, or, Writing Music is Hard (Part I)

By Zach Sheets


In his essays The Ideology of Performer-as-Interpreter and An interdisciplinary approach to music performance, fellow Soonest Mended writer Keir GoGwilt poses many interesting questions for discussion about the study and performance of classical music today, and in this two-part article I hope to pick up a variety of the threads and continue the discussion. Many of his ideas deal with the relationship between performer and composer, and in Part I I’d like to consider these insights in a new context—contemporary music and music notation from the past 50 years. In Part II, then, I’ll broach a further conversation about the role of the composer’s intent, performing music of our own time, and musical training.


I like to consider the relationship between composer and performer as an analogy to the field of semiotics — essentially, as a negotiation between Saussure’s idea of signifier and signified. The composer first makes a series of symbols in the specialized language of music notation: the signifier. Then, the composer gives this to a performer, to guide a realization of a series of sounds that she has imagined: her “composition”, and the signified. For those of you that might want to brush up on this theory, here are two helpful links. As a basic example: When I say “dog” (the signifier), you imagine any variety of dogs (the signified), but I can get more specific by adding modifiers like “brown” or “German Shepherd”. Similarly, if I said “gato” to a Spanish speaker, they would think of a cat—but, caution: if I said the same to a French speaker, they’d hear “gateau”, and think of a cake.

With language, we’ve come to agree that certain things have concrete, real-world associations. Musical language has some of that, too (chiefly rhythms, pitches, and orchestration), but we arrive quickly into a realm of signs whose nature is considerably more ambiguous. Further, certain signs can confuse or destabilize others: for instance, it’s common to see precise rhythms written, but with the instruction “flexible, freely”. When we talk about notational signifiers within contemporary music, imagine that I’m describing a dog that 1. is very specific, 2. is one that only I have ever seen, 3. doesn’t actually exist, 4. is preferentially described with words reserved for iconic dogs we definitely both know about, like Scooby-Doo, Lassie, or Snoopy, and 5. might, to you, look more like a dragon or a toaster or a tennis racket than a dog.


As Adorno says, music is language-like, even though it is not a language, in that it is “a temporal sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds”.[1] Semioticians might phrase it that the signifier/signified pair has a much less clearly defined referent. The referent is the real-world thing toward which language points; in our earlier example, it would be the living, breathing dog sitting at my feet. The absence of such a referent causes ambiguity and suspends musical notation in a strange terrain—its inner workings are a combination of tradition and acculturated convention that mingle with psychology and physiology. Some might argue that the composer’s vision of the work constitutes a referent for their signifier, but I think it is wildly unlikely to say that a composer has one flawless imagining of a singular, perfect rendition. Even by admitting only slight variation in possible “good” performances, musical notation immediately becomes but a means of conveying a fragrance of fuller idea. There’s a gap to navigate between what a composer signifies and what a performer understands as signified, so composers must be conscious to get their performers to consider their instructions in the right constellation of pieces they already know. Perhaps the ideal would be that composers would be able to write or show their ideas in such a way that performers could derive an interpretation independent of other pieces—without re-synthesizing their knowledge of pre-existing music—but that would be challenging, time-consuming for both parties, and maybe just flat-out impossible. Subtly orienting your notation so that it gravitates towards these constellations of similar thinking is useful and efficient, so that’s often what composers do, in a variety of ways.

Broadly speaking, Western music notation evolved to show most efficiently the information that was at the time most pressing. After a variety of stops along the way, it landed upon a system ideal for showing, chiefly, which instrument plays what notes, how loud, and in what part of a rigidly determined metrical structure (the “rhythms, pitches, and orchestration” from above). Things cemented around the late classical period, and few radical changes in notational practice occurred between, roughly, 1820 and 1950. While the musical style and affect are completely different, the knowledge required to make Mendelssohn legible is roughly interchangeable with that required for Stravinsky, plus or minus some middle-school-level math. However, new thinking in the post-WWII avant-garde in Europe (the Darmstadt school) and the American experimentalist tradition (Cage, Oliveros, et al) set in motion a series of exciting developments for musical notation. I would like to consider some of these new trends as a different lens for exploring GoGwilt’s concerns with the “double-bind” performers are in, facing a mystified expressive individuality that is strangely coupled to a need to “represent the composer’s intent.” Much of this exploration will take place in Part II, however, as the remainder of Part I will be largely tasked with laying a groundwork for the field of notation in contemporary music.


To use very generalized language, let’s think of notation as ranging from simple to complex. In other words, how easy is it to decipher the surface level details of this piece? We must add to this axis a second one, however—one that considers the range from prescriptive to descriptive. Is this composer showing me what to do with my body on the stage (prescriptive) or telling me what sounds should be audible in the concert hall (descriptive)? I would like to consider a handful of composers and their approach to notation: John Luther Adams, Trevor Baca, Brian Ferneyhough, Jennifer Walshe, and Eric Wubbels.

Let’s start with Brian Ferneyhough, a British composer long-associated with a movement called “new complexity.” He writes in the instructions to his solo flute piece Cassandra’s Dream Song:

The notation does not represent the result required: it is the attempt to realize the written specifications in practice which is designed to produced the desired (but unnotatable) sound-quality. [ ] A “beautiful”, cultivated performance is not to be aimed at: some of the combinations of actions specified are in any case either not literally realizable (certain dynamic groupings) or else lead to complex, partly unpredictable results. Nevertheless, a valid realization will only result from a rigorous attempt to reproduce as many of the textural details as possible: such divergencies and “impurities” as then follow from the natural limitations of the instrument itself may be taken to be the intentions of the composer.[2]

This is a fascinating approach to engraving musical ideas — and one that has had a considerable impact on classical music’s trajectory. In other words, Ferneyhough is saying: “try to play these signifiers; I know that you will fail, but, in failing, you will make a signified that I would like to happen”. It is complex, evidently, and has a foot in both prescriptive and descriptive worlds. That the signifiers on the page are more indicative of an attempt than of a result is a fundamentally prescriptive quality; however, the music’s extraordinarily challenging nature, made of building blocks of familiar signs that one could find in Brahms or Beethoven, gives it a trying-and-failing quality that is not wholly prescriptive. Its “unrealizability” situates it as a description of a prescription, so to speak. The gap between signifier and signified is made intractable by the limits of instrumental technique, and the crux of the interpretation is therefore the craftsmanship involved in navigating this gap.

Entirely prescriptive notation is rare, but it exists. Trevor Baca’s music is similarly complex (his solo flute piece Sekka took several weeks of deciphering at the coffee shop before I even entered the practice room), because it exists almost entirely in the prescriptive realm of notation. In Sekka, one line shows the notes to make with you fingers on the flute, one shows the variety of fricative phonemes to sustain with your breath, one shows the azimuth rotation of the flute on your face (like blowing into a wine bottle pointed down at your stomach vs. held up like a trumpet), and one shows the lateral angle of the flute relative to your face (like a door on its hinges). The player has to read and follow all four lines at once, and each line provides right-or-wrong, quantifiable information. The result is a beautiful collage of breath, air, and half-pitched melodies, like listening to someone singing to oneself from far away.

There are also wholly prescriptive pieces that are very easy to decipher. Their signifiers suggest what to do with our instruments or bodies (not what signified sounds should be perceived from the audience)—but they exist in a much more simplified realm of notation. Here’s the score to a piece by the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, reprinted on the popular new music site “I care if you listen”. A mix of performance art and improvisation, it seeks to situate a player’s intuition and moment-to-moment impulses by establishing skateboarding culture and the physics of skateboarding as the field of play for an improvised series of pitches and sounds.

Swinging around to a completely different quadrant on our roughly-hewn map of recent music, let’s consider the music of John Luther Adams, an American composer who has lived much of his life in Alaska. His recent work, The Light Within, contains not a single indication of how loud to play, and is primarily composed of long tones in simple rhythms[3]. It’s a work for a handful of winds, strings, percussion, and an electronic soundtrack that plays back on loudspeakers. The surface-level detail of its signifiers can be understood immediately by a player, but it takes careful practice to stay focused, blend together with the electronic part, and maintain a beautiful, in-tune sound. The absence of markings is not accidental or apathetic; the craftsmanship is in the proportioning of harmonic changes and perceptual effect of such an understated musical signified. Furthermore, the composer told me, once, that he likes the musicians to have options of interpretation that he himself has not considered, and for this reason he leaves his notation very general as a matter of principle; it is a description, but one that gives the performers a heavy hand in deciding what the notation signifies.

The final example is a recent piece by Eric Wubbels, called Katachi I+II. The musical ideas range the gamut from simple to complex, but the signifiers remains considerably more descriptive than prescriptive throughout. It was written for his ensemble, Wet Ink, with whom he works closely all the time, and for which he is the pianist. As such, even complex extended instrumental techniques are written in a kind of “shorthand” that doesn’t often do more than suggest the desired effect. For instance, he indicates to the flutist and saxophonist to “overblow” normal fingerings—making varieties of louder, more strident sounds—by showing a horizontal line in different positions within a box. This notation is non-standard and is not explained anywhere in the score. This less prescriptive approach evidently engenders a lot of questions and possibility for confusion (the saxophonist and I could only guess what the line in the box meant), but encourages a certain “group sensitivity” to sonic exploration; to make sense of it all, one must pay careful attention to the performance of one’s colleagues. Ultimately, any discrepancies or questions may be solved, in the short-term, by consulting Wet Ink’s (evidently definitive) recording of the piece.


This has been a whirwind tour of some approaches by living composers to their music-making, and some of the considerations to which they must respond. Stay tuned for part II in a few weeks, which shall take this foundation forward to answering some questions about musical interpretation, the role of the performer, and the place of conservatory training to navigate it all.


[1] Adorno, Theodor. Quasi una Fantasia; essays on Modern Music. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Verso Classics; New York, 2002.

[2] Ferneyhough, Brian. Cassandra’s Dream Song. Edition Peters; New York, 1975.

[3] Adams, John Luther. The Light Within. Taiga Press; Fairbanks, AK, 2009.


2 comments on “Performer-Composer Dialogues in Contemporary Music, or, Writing Music is Hard (Part I)

  1. georgewoskob
    May 8, 2015

    Thank you for this article Zach! It’s very interesting to read about recent developments in written music. However, pieces like Brian Ferneyhough’s and Jennifer Walshe take advantage of the composer-performer relationship (if Walshe is to be taken seriously at all). I think the notion of impossible notation as in “Cassandra’s Dream Song” might make a performer distrustful of the composer.

  2. ñ
    May 8, 2015

    Fantastic article, Zach. Would you consider Cage’s prepared piano or guitar tablature as examples of entirely prescriptive notation?

    This also got me thinking about Trevor Wishart’s discussion of notation in his book On Sonic Art. He comments that in 10th century western musical practice the two parameters that lent themselves best to notation were pitch and rhythm. This consequently contributed to the primacy of pitch and rhythm in western music. Wishart says “In similar ways to alphabetic writing, analytic notation is in many ways a liberating invention. It frees composers from the established norms of a musical tradition and permits him or her to explore new and unheard possibilities. At the same time it is the very malleability of the notatable parameters which enables and encourages the one-sided, two-dimensional expansion of musical possibilities [pitch and rhythm]… the primary qualities are those which have been accurately notated – in a certain limited sense — the secondary qualities those which have not (pp. 30-31).”

    He also says musical experience has been “fundamentally twisted by the impact of musical notation itself, gradually forcing music to kow-tow to the verbally definable. In fact, with the increasing domination of notation, there has been a move towards Platonic idealism in our conception of what music is (p. 34).”

    “The split in conception between what are seen as primary [pitch and rhythm] and secondary [timbre, dynamics, articulation etc] aspects of musical organization leads to a split between composer and performer, between composition and interpretation and the gradual devaluation of non-notatable formations. This development leads directly to the attitudes expressed by Boulez and to the intellectual devaluation of forms of music (such as jazz improvisation) where non-notatable aspects of musical form have greater importance than in conventional classical music (p. 35).”

    Lots to think about. I look forward to your second article.

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