A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
I'm definitely of two minds when it comes to composer performances -- my own and others' (minds and performances). It doesn't really matter if it's Bruce Springsteen grimacing in front of his microphone or me hunching wide-eyed in front of mine. It looks, well, goofy. Maybe our visually extreme behavior increases in competition with other, more attractive and energetic youngsters, or even with our own once-youthful rebellion. But then that looked goofy, too. (Why Bruce? He and I were both chosen to be among New Jersey's Top Forty Musicians in 1977. So we got a thing, see.)
If you're wondering what this is about: A video of my performance of Spammung at the Re:Soundings concert is now online. As before, it's just a tripodded camera off to the side. You can get it in Quicktime or Windows Media (stream - download).
In new nonpop (no matter what the era), the composer's involvement is a given. Even accomplished composers learn a great deal from ensembles as they work through a piece (which accounts for, say, Mahler's endless revisions). But what message do composers project when they perform? What do they learn from their own performances? Some composers were primarily performers, and their music may be adequate (Paganini) or even good (Chopin), but once outside the areas of their expertise, the music can sag into conformity and dullness (such as Chopin's concertos). Even as excellent conductors performing with a baton, composers may be weak with their own work, such as the conducting by Stravinsky (whom I heard in person in the 1960s doing Le Sacre du Printemps), particularly on his dreadfully two-dimensional Petroushka and other Columbia recordings, and Boulez, whose icy direction reveals none of the exquisite depth of, for example, Le Marteau sans Maître.
Why is this? The mysterious concept of interpretation comes into play. Performers can interpret what they discover, as all of it is discovery. But composers cannot hear past the facts of the music, nor can they resist mentally supplying and filling in richness or 'experiencing over' performance errors. Ths is a peculiar condition of composed music; that is, improvisers, who are composing on the spot, must bring the full range of imagination immediately and directly into play. By contrast, the choosing, sorting, focusing and filtering needed to give birth to a score allows for extended consideration of possibilities and a thorough process of pre-discovery. Once those choices are made, the music is relegated to a set of instructions that must be rebuilt into the music through re-discovery. It is during the performance stage that composers replace their imagined version with a fully rebuilt interpretation. They must replace their initially imagined version or the performance will fail. If composing takes discipline, performance takes even more, for composers must almost impossibly blot out what they know and once again explore as if they were precocious children.
The other day I wrote about the composers' attempts at electronic ur-versions and how they can fail. When performing all but the most tradition-drenched compositions (those of John Williams, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and John Corigiliano, for example), composers also risk failure, a commentary largely limited to nonpop. Pop music is performer-driven, and a production team guides performances, which are often syllable-perfect recreations of a studio recording -- enough so that lip-syncing has occasionally cursed even the brightest of pop stars. When poets and songwriters become or return to being performers (first coming to mind are Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Carly Simon, Suzanne Vega, James Taylor, Tracy Chapman, k.d. lang, Sheryl Crow, Dave Mathews, Ani DiFranco), they can often succeed in a distant, cool or even ironic kind of way -- and those who don't perform seriously shouldn't (let say, Burt Bacharach). These are generalizations where the exceptions may be myriad, but the point I'm heading for is that the pop world, with its performer drive, can allow and encourage and hail composers who are performers, because their expressive capabilities overcome their technical limitations, even putting upon them the herald of style.
The nonpop realm is so very different from this, a world divided across the page. Some composers (and critics) feel it should not be so divided -- that composers have become too distant from their audience by means of a self-isolation behind the manuscript. Mozart and Beethoven performed, they will say, as did Chopin and Liszt. But I wonder. With few exceptions (Rachmaninoff, for example) the great nonpop composer-performers of the past preceded the era of recording. In our heavily classical-judgmental age where some performers have driven themselves to (Glenn Gould) or from (Sergiu Celibidache) the recording studio in striving for perfection, it is unlikely that a composer of major media stature will be performing -- at least in the solo role. Philip Glass and Steve Reich play, of course, but as part of ensembles. Composers conduct. But are they satisfactory interpreters? Would they be considered satisfactory in any way were they not to wear the mantle of composer? (For that matter, are Leonard Cohen's own performances satisfying because they're merely quirky? As opposed to musically rich, as other performers have achieved with them?)
Where is this heading? To a self-criticism -- that I am no more successful at expressing my own pieces than other composers, and perhaps less so. In watching the videos of Spammung and The Moon, I saw so many missed opportunities, so much reticence, so few sustained moments of expression and clarity, so much weakness in the vocal and corporal machine. And (having finished two hours of gardening between writing the first and second halves of the previous sentence) it seems that the pieces themselves are clumsy and unnatural.
But they're art, you may be thinking. This isn't some Seneca-soaked omnis ars naturae imitatio est time of being! We live with and in this technology. Enough of the damn back-to-the-gardenisms!
Yeah, okay. But it's still a disappointment.
Back to the Blog Index