Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Composer-Performer Debate

Periodically in our world of composition the topic of the composer-performer will come up, which invariably sparks a debate about whether or not the composer should also be an active performer. 

It is quite clear that someone who is an active performer will have a leg up economically (more gigs, etc.) and will undoubtedly use a lot of their knowledge of performance realities to inform their own writing, which can be a huge compositional asset. On the other hand, if you spend 100% of your working time coming up with musical ideas there is a strength in that, as well--a strength that might not be there if you have to devote a significant percentage of your time to practicing. 

Composing is, in many ways, like screenwriting or playwriting. Although it is intimately related to performing and requires much knowledge of musical history, theory, and performance, composition also requires a different skill set than practicing an instrument. I believe this different skill set, which is so elusive and so specific to the individual composer, is why there are so many different kinds of composers working today. Some composers come to composition with a mentality that is based in visual art, language, literature, architecture, mathematics, etc. Composition is always about music, but it is also about structure, patterns, narratives, and emotion. 

This is not to say that the composer is necessarily better off without a performance background. However, very rarely (perhaps never?) have I met a composer who didn't have years of instrumental study and/or ensemble participation. Of course, non-performing composers have to try extra hard to understand what they are asking of performers (honestly, though, this is something that composers have to do anyway, as very few play all the instruments that they write for). As a non-performing composer, I do my best to keep up with practicing and music-making in private ways so that I can imagine the demands that I am making on the performers who will execute my work. 

In addition, the more I teach the more important I think it is for young composition students to immerse themselves in their instrumental lessons, in musicianship, and in theory and history. That said, I'm not sure such an immersion always has to translate to being an active performer. I say this with a fair amount of personal bias, as I am an introvert and have never enjoyed performing, even when I was younger and piano recitals were my main outlet for musical expression. When I realized that composing could be a primary way for me to engage with sounds--something I have always loved and felt was incredibly important to my existence--without having to endure the stress and pain of performance, I was ecstatic. 

I suspect, given the peculiar nature of the creative mind, that I am not alone and that many composers aren't necessarily people who also want to get on stage. Performing is not always an exhilarating or fulfilling experience for all of us. In fact, sometimes there are even performers who hate performing and have to spend their whole lives training themselves to get over their nerves. I know I would be in the latter category if I were a performer and, quite frankly, I would rather devote my life to writing music. I think I can offer the music community a lot more as a composer and a teacher. 

Of course, this is just my perspective (as all of my posts are, after all!), but I do get a little bit tired of having to defend my decision not to perform and I wanted to articulate here why I usually don't. I also hope that over time people will be less prescriptive about what kind of path a composer "should" take. All composers are different and as long as the music is good, nothing else matters.

Posted by Natalie

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