Composers are people too…

And like people we make mistakes. In fact, we make mistakes when we write music. Sometimes (and often I would wager) composers are not completely aware of what we’re doing when we compose. Sure, we set up structures, devise patterns, create systems and boxes for our music to exist in. But as of late, I’ve been finding that these tools we make and utilize in the process of composing are there to assist the composer, rather than the listener; and sometimes a choice made in our process that we might consider integral or pivotal to the work, is virtually–if not completely–imperceptible to the listener or the performer.

I’ll offer up two recent experiences of my own music that compelled me to consider this idea. The first is my piano trio Moonrise. When I was composing this work, I spent a fair amount of time creating a large structure before I wrote a note. I drew graphs of time, delineated structural boundaries, annotated when new material would appear, and what generated that material. When I was ready to start composing the notes and rhythms, I had before me a ten minute work, divided into five major sections with a ritornello. This was the structure, this was the piece I called Moonrise.

Over the next few weeks I completed the work and handed it over to The Neave Trio who learned the work and gave an excellent performance on my graduate recital. It was the highlight of the concert–overshadowing the other works–and despite being described as a largely inaccessible work by one of my instructors, it proved to be the most popular, even among those with little formal training in music. Additionally, it’s one of my favorite pieces of mine.

All that aside, a peculiar thing happened to me as I listened to the performance and the studio recording made The Neave Trio (the embedded video). The more I listened, the more I failed to hear the five sections I had created during my process of composition. What I heard was three large sections instead of five. My experience as a listener was remarkably different than my experience as the composer. This got me thinking about any analysis of the work that someone may attempt (I know, it’s a self-indulgent thought) and how much my process as the composer would even matter if it isn’t evident in hearing the work.

During my music theory courses, my instructors would often cite notes, sketches, and other kinds of materials in the analysis of a work. The process or intent of the composer was often portrayed as a goal of analysis. But what if these materials and the composer’s process do not support one’s experience as a listener? In the case of Moonrise one would clearly see from my notes where the major sections begin and end, but that would contradict with their listening experience. So what takes priority: the process of the composer or the listening experience? My opinion is with the listening experience because that involves the sound more so than the composer’s process. This brings up a fundamental question about the purpose of musical analysis and music theory: is it about the composer or the listener, or perhaps something else?

Another experience I had with this was during a rehearsal for my Songs for Autumn cycle that was also performed last May on my graduate recital. “Today” is the seventh and final song of the cycle, and as you can see by the excerpt from the score, written in common time. When it came time for me to conduct the song in rehearsal, a feeling of four beats to the bar was nonexistent. “I’m feeling this in two,” the clarinet player said. We played it in two and the song came together rather quickly. Once again, a choice I made during the composition process did not reach the listener, and in this case, the choice I made was discarded by the performers for something else. Essentially I made a mistake and wrote the wrong time signature on the score.

"Today" lyrics by Ainsley Kelly.

“Today” lyrics by Ainsley Kelly.


In the academic world of music the place of the composer is often held in high regard. “The intent of the composer” is often touted in rehearsals as justification for decisions made by performers. Presumably ensembles are performing a particular composer’s music because they like the way it sounds, so reproducing what the composer directs through the score should bring about the intended result. But what about these times when the composer makes a composing mistake? What if a group just likes something else more? Outside of the conservatory/academic tradition in Western music, performers take liberties with others’ compositions all the time. Think about all the great cover songs out there. Each of us can probably mention one or two cover songs that we’d rather listen to instead of the composer’s original version. (Here’s an awesome version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” by Daughter.)

Inside of the conservatory/academic tradition it’s not as accepted, but changes are made all the time. Movements are omitted, sections cut, pauses added, and tempos are changed to suit the fancies of the performers. Some of these decisions must be in response to errors made by composers. But yet the all to common line “let’s do what the composer intended” is flouted about as something that is sacrosanct.

Why do composers make it difficult for performers?

Why do composers make it difficult for performers? A moment of our collective frustration during the first “Songs for Autumn” rehearsal.

As I mentioned before, ensembles choose to play works by composers because they like the way it sounds. So it would suit their interests to reproduce the instructions laid out in the score. However, they should not let a blind faith in the composer’s intent get in the way of making a choice that would enhance the experience. On the other hand, if one finds themselves making changes left and right, it would probably be more appropriate to just write original music. Composers are not heroes, demigods, or that much more special than you or anyone else. We are people who make choices about how stuff should sound, and sometimes we get it wrong.

2 Responses

  1. Danial Tijuana April 14, 2014 / 6:04 PM

    Very thoughtful and true. Things change between writer and reader, composer and listener. No doubt about that. But what you have sketched is even more, detailing the process of work by musicians that moves between the composer and the audience. Reading your thoughts and words, almost immediately I think about three important facets of translation and verbal meaning: semantic (the word), syntax (the clustered phrase of words), and pragmatic (meaning as constructed by the reader/audience).

    • Danial Tijuana April 21, 2014 / 12:02 AM

      And being pragmatic, structuring the piece so it works better with an audience, is the secret of quiet performance changes made by performers. Yes.

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