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It’s what the composer intended: Part II in a series on composer-performer dialogues

by Zach Sheets

Music is translated, apparently, only when a specific need arises and we are compelled to go from the actual musical experience to its verbal description, from the sound of one instrument to another, or from the silent reading of a musical text to its performance. In reality this need is so pervasive and permanent that we are tempted to say that the history of music is indeed a history of translation.[1]

-Luciano Berio, 1993-1994 Norton Lectures at Harvard University

In part two of this two-part series, I’d like to continue examining how composers communicate their musical ideas to performers, expanding my response to ideas presented here by fellow writer Keir GoGwilt. In essence, his view is that performers today find themselves in a strange double-bind, in which they are expected to have a certain individualized, “expressive” quality, while remaining faithful to “the intentions of the composer.” Especially for performers of canonical Classical and Romantic repertoire, these paradoxical expectations—to establish a poetical individuality and to be the interpreter of an un-obscured vision of the “composer’s intention”—can offer a dim or perplexing outlook of possibilities. On the face of it, I would argue that the problem at hand stems from insufficient pedagogy, as well as a misunderstanding of the role of notation. At a more nuanced level, however, I believe this tension forces performers to have a clarity of purpose about why they make music and what a “good performance” means to them.
zach-outreach-concert (1)

The notion of the “composer’s intention” works its way into our thinking very early in our training as performers. I would contend that this is, in many ways, an issue of pedagogical convenience. Citing a composer’s authority over a text is an easy and unimpeachable way of telling a student to do something differently. It’s rare that an instrument in the hands of a novice is wont to produce something elegant or musically poignant, and, often, subtle alterations can make playing a passage much easier. Earlier this year I had a student who hadn’t carefully observed the articulation markings in the etude he was playing, and all the notes were awkwardly long and heavy. “I would play those much shorter,” I said, to which he responded: “Why? I think they sound better longer.” “Well,” I sputtered, it’s… it’s what the composer wanted.” He nodded and attempted to play them shorter.

There are a handful of artist-scholars who can wax poetic about the meaning of any musical detail at the drop of a hat—Robert Levin or Mitsuko Uchida come to mind—but for the rest of us, “it’s what the composer wanted” is quite a convenient phrase. It works as a miraculous pedagogical trump suit: unimpeachable in its logic and undeniable as being the right course of action for a piece’s surface-level details (in part 1, we called these “signifiers”). Over time, however, it becomes harmful to reduce questions of musical exploration to, simply, what the composer “does” and “doesn’t” want. This back-and-forth sort of “guessing and checking” about what is “intended” paves the way to a bland musical thinking that treats notation like a math quiz, not the complex web of signs, symbols, and associations that it has become over its circa 800 year heritage.

As performers evolve from students to artists, they learn that sometimes they must subtly alter the composer’s notation to make a satisfactory performance. There are several reasons why a performer might do other than is “in the score”; most frequently, it’s a subtle misunderstanding by the composer of instrumental mechanism. Translating sounds from the mind’s ear is tricky business, and errors can range from slight (mildly underestimating how strident an instrument is in a certain register) to egregious (asking a player to play notes out of the instrument’s range). Questions of loudness and softness, for instance, are often subject to a necessary “calibration” between composer and performer. Does fortissimo mean a full, triumphant sound, or something brash and overexerted? Does the quietest marking in a piece approach inaudibility, or something precious and small, like a music box?

A yet more complex example of the kind of “decoding” that skilled performers do is the idea of rubato. Rubare, the Italian word for “to steal”, implies fluctuations in tempo without altering the overall metrical structure. Especially in contemporary music, which tends towards a specificity of desired tempo and rhythm, rubato risks going against the grain of what a composer imagined. It can replace nuanced musical thinking with the misnomer that playing rhythms wrong is somehow “expressive”. However, this freedom of tempo, executed thoughtfully, can offer a flexibility and finesse that makes for a radiant performance—and one that would be near impossible to notate literally.


The last few paragraphs have discussed modifications that performers make to the signifiers on the page, in an attempt to establish the proper context in which to realize a piece of music. Remember our gato and gateau from last time? The same sounds heard by a French speaker or a Spanish speaker would mean remarkably different things—and likely wouldn’t mean anything at all to an English speaker—and so it is with music notation on the page. We can imagine the comedic effect of a Parisian stubbornly asking for a “gato” in a Madrid pastry shop; nevertheless, many performers tie themselves in knots trying to make the proper summary of “what’s on the page” without regard for differences in context or musical language.

            Some performers situate themselves as reactionaries against that kind of narrowness of thought, but risk an equally clumsy performance for opposite reasons. Musical “liberty” doesn’t mean doing whatever you want, and changing details of a piece to fit one’s fancy is, for me, virtually never successful. It’s like the idea that knocking over a bucket of paint is more “creative” than learning basic brushstrokes, merely because it’s an act of artistic “freedom”. It’s one thing to edit the notation on the page to try to achieve a musical result that, actually, you imagine to be closer to a composer’s vision. However, if a performer thinks she understands what is signified by a certain notation and chooses to alter that, I begin to question why she chose to play the piece in the first place. It strikes me as odd to perform a piece in which you have doubts about the composer’s imagined creation; we have our hands on a veritable mountain of music from the past many centuries that you could play instead, or, better yet, you could simply write it yourself.

What I think is essential for performers today, then, is something of which my friend Madison never tires to remind me: “each piece necessitates its own listening.” Rather than anchoring ourselves to an ideology of text-reading, we must incessantly navigate the different constellations of notation. Some works are lone stars that exist entirely on their own terms; some are part of a large grouping and cannot but be seen alongside their neighbors; and some works will be the brand-new star whose light reaches us first in a patch of empty night, and forces us to re-draw our maps—and reconsider how we look at the whole sky.[2]


Many musicians with a classical training would claim that 20th and 21st century works—the newest additions to our star charts—are by far less easily legible than older music. In many cases, said musicians might claim that this complexity is to its detriment. My colleagues often bemoan that it “leaves no space for individual expression.” Why? The idea that a more detailed score leaves no room for individuality is, to me, a very prohibitive position; try describing the total visual, aural, sensual, and physical perceptual effect of a single bow-stroke by a violinist. Our bodies, instruments, and musical thinking are all so different that I fail to see how a complex, detailed score infringes on a performer’s “freedom”; my sense is that Brahms feels like a more open field simply because most classically trained musicians are more familiar with different ways to play Brahms.

Yet, it would be a mistake to stop here, at what is simply a defense of notation in recent music: what about challenging the idea that any kind of notation could strip a performer of “freedom”? Perhaps it’s a naïve position, but I believe that claiming a work is too difficult, too complex, or too specific to allow for artistic freedom is simply an admission that you are not yet familiar enough with that piece of music to be performing it. Naturally, the manifold different kinds of music-making we have today tend to necessitate a higher degree of specificity to describe musical ideas. There is an established tradition when playing Brahms, Mendelssohn, or Beethoven—or, at least, a pretty narrow corridor of style—that doesn’t exist yet for Walshe, Wubbels, or Baca.

Brian Ferneyhough String Quartet

I will admit that, compared to two centuries ago, newer music tends to have a lot more complex surface-level details and signifiers; however, while the amount of work required to give an adequate performance has changed, the amount of work required for a really excellent one has not wavered. A piece like Eric Wubbels katachi i+ii is dazzlingly hard, and opportunities to hear it are rare, indeed—especially compared to a canonical work like the Schubert Cello Quintet or a Beethoven Piano Trio, which are both easier to “put together”. However, it’s not by accident that I’ve heard nothing but outstanding performances of Wubbels’ work, and dozens of uninspired performances of Schubert or Beethoven among the handful of comparably good ones. In other words, I think a really excellent performance of Wubbels takes as much practice and skill as a really excellent performance of Schubert; it is only in a mediocre performance that the Schubert is easier. Our familiarity with this older music and subsequent ease with which we can get “right” what’s on the page seem to give a false sense of security as to when a performance is sufficient. An excellent performance, by contrast, crosses a magical threshold into something thrilling and vibrant, and the careful practice, thought, and ability that make this leap possible have nothing to do with how specific or complex a piece’s notation is; rather, they flourish with familiarity and understanding of a musical work on its own terms.

I suppose there is yet one question unanswered: what does it actually mean to play “musically”? Most of the previous paragraphs—this essay at large, really—danced around words like “expressive”, “vibrant”, or “thrilling.” Adorno says that “to be musical means to energize incipient intentions: to harness, not indulge them”. My friend Marek talks about weight: “Quality music makes the air heavy… I find myself face to face with some enormous thing, some collective project that exceeds my relationship to it. It’s huge—I sense its gravity.” For me, it’s an all-encompassing breathlessness—a need to know what’s about to happen: it is as though I were an insect who must extend its antennae as far and wide as possible, for fear of missing the subtlest change in air pressure.

This is perhaps an old-fashioned position, but I still consider performing to be a fundamentally outward act—an act of sharing with the people around you—and that performance is the primary event in a performer’s musical life. Just because the language of aesthetic judgment is intertwined in Romantic ideology doesn’t mean considering expressivity on one’s own terms is necessarily bad or even regressive. Playing “musically” may not be something I can measure, but it’s something I’ve felt, on both sides of the stage, and something that I think I can navigate towards reproducing at least somewhat reliably. In fact, if we all set sail towards our own ideals of what a good performance means, it might provide precisely the heterogeneity of perspectives we need to overcome the gloomy outlook of replica performances and what Keir refers to as a “repetitive musical economy”. First, though, must we confront these questions of reading a musical text head-on, and acquire a vision of what we want to make in our mind’s ear. Mitsuko Uchida summarizes it beautifully, with her explanation of how “musicality” can be acquired: when you have a real musical understanding coupled with a conviction in what you do, an individualized charisma comes naturally.

[1] Berio, Luciano. Remembering the Future. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2006.

[2] I owe this (beautiful) metaphor to Giorgio Agamben in his book on contemporaneity


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This entry was posted on September 7, 2015 by in Art.
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