Sometimes the Who Can Be the What: Performers, Composers, and Audiences Revisited

by Nathan Cornelius

In an earlier conversation with my colleagues from this blog, someone made the remark that sometimes, the “what” of a musical composition—the specific content of a piece—can directly generate the “how”—the composer’s method of working on it. As I ponder the strange and difficult process of creating a piece of music, I’ve considered what other pronouns might afford composers subject matter with which to work.  Fundamentally, creating a piece of music is a collaborative process, requiring the efforts of not only the composer, but also of performers, conductors, presenters, and, ultimately, of listeners to bring it to life. Thus, the “who” of composing—the other people involved in the process—would be a logical starting point for the composer in search of ideas. In this post, I’d like to explore three ways in which these relationships inspire and inform my work.

  1. The audience’s knowledge

Writers of words must be constantly mindful of their readers’ preconceptions, interests, and knowledge of the subject matter. The same is true in music: composers would do well to consider who will be the initial audience for a piece and how familiar they are with various musical languages. Not to do so is to risk failing to connect with the audience, leaving them cold and confused. To be sure, the composer’s job often is to stretch audiences’ ears to hear sounds in unfamiliar ways. Nevertheless, it is the audience that provides the starting point from which they are stretched, and different audiences may possess varying degrees of aesthetic elasticity. Nor am I arguing that composers should pander to audiences’ tastes to ensure popularity and success. Music is essentially communication, a sharing of peculiar and powerful thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. For music to achieve its goal, it is not necessary that the audience like it, only that it communicate with them on some level—often an emotional one. But just as readers can only be moved by words in languages whose vocabulary they know, engaging music must relate, even if only tangentially, to something with which the audience is familiar.

  1. The performer’s ability

It goes without saying that composers ought to write for performers who can successfully execute their music. Too often, however, composers idealistically write a piece and then search for someone, anyone, who can actually play it. I can attest to the frustration to which this often leads, as well as the benefits of working closely with a trusted and capable performer. I remember one of my recent compositions which featured very difficult writing for one instrument. Although my performer was too polite to say so, I realized that what I had written did not lay very easily on the instrument. At the premiere, however, the performer was able to pull off the difficult bits with panache. Afterwards one of my teachers complimented me on my idiomatic writing for the instrument, which was mostly a function of the performer’s virtuosity. Even though the piece at times succeeded in spite of my writing rather than because of it, the quality of the performance casts it in a favorable light for future listeners. For this reason, I often let the availability of good performers—both proficient in technique and passionate about new music—guide the forces for which I write and the techniques I explore in my music.

  1. The performer’s personality

The individuality of the performer can influence not only the genre and technical requirements of a piece, but also the style and content. The composer David Maslanka says that before beginning to write a piece, he mystically receives a glimpse into some painful aspect of the performer’s inner life for which the music must provide redemption or catharsis. While I make no claims to such special insights (nor am I sure I would even want them), I do believe composers should write with the performer’s personality, musical or otherwise, in mind.  My most successful pieces have been ones in which I created the fundamental structure and texture of the work with a view to highlighting the performers’ unique strengths and downplaying any weaknesses they may have. Sometimes, the expressive character of the work may also play towards a performer’s musical sensibilities and interpretive style.

Igor Stravinsky said that the more restrictions he was forced to follow in writing a piece, the more easily he composed. Some composers generate these creative restrictions by first making a set of musical rules and then writing the work within them. Yet, a living, breathing human being is a far richer source of inspiration than an arrangement of dots and lines on a page, providing more fruitful tensions than can abstract compositional rules. As a composer, I believe my music will benefit from including the personalities, abilities, and idiosyncrasies of the wonderful people with whom I get to work. In other words… letting the “who” be the “what” might lead to a better “what”  than there was when the “what”  was just “what”.