A very dear friend of mine, Joe Ornstein, is a mandolinist with whom I play music from time to time. Although he has written a few songs over the years and is an inventive improviser, he would never use the word composer to describe himself. According to Joe, he is everything he has ever listened to; composers, on the other hand, are people who are everything they have listened to as well as the stuff they haven’t heard yet.
Complimentarily, a pretty well-established composer has said to me that she thinks the word composer has been greatly overused. According to her, you can’t call yourself a composer; someone else has to identify you that way first. This implies a sentiment with which I ultimately would agree: namely, that a composer is someone who writes music for other people to perform.
Sure, there have been and continue to be tons of great composer/performers out there. But if no one else ever performs your own music except for you, are you a composer? Is a singer-songwriter whose material never gets covered by anyone else a composer? And doesn’t being a composer somehow imply being able to create for a variety of forces? What about Conlon Nancarrow whose major contribution to music history is a remarkable series of short compositions all scored for player piano, an instrument that does not even require a performer? Obviously, the minute you try to make a hard and fast rule, you’re doomed.
That said, I’ve been debating the usage of the word “artist” to describe performers who are interpreting the music created by other people. To the outside world, artists are typically people who work in the visual arts who either paint or sculpt images of their own design. Yes, of course, Andy Warhol did not design the Campbell soup cans or Brillo boxes he had ubiquitously tessellated. Then again, he also frequently did not carry out the actual painting for many of these works either. But he is undisputedly still the artist of all of that work because in every case the idea to present these images in such a manner was his.
In popular parlance, the artist in music always refers to the performer. Certainly in many genres of popular music, the interpretation of the music frequently carries a more identifiable sound than the original material. The composers for much of this music are rarely household names; often hit songs are created by groups of contributors and the interpreter who brings the song to life is the auteur mostly responsible for its success. However, in the always contrarian world of composer-based “classical” music, the reverse is true. There might indeed be as many interpretations as there are performances of the Elliott Carter Sonata for Cello and Piano or even Terry Riley’s In C out there. But at the end of the day, the person whose contribution to that performance looms largest is Carter or Riley, despite the fact that neither one might be involved in that actual performance.
Mind you, this is in no way meant to disparage performers. After all, I’m married to one! And as a result I have gained a completely different musical perspective not only on my own work, but the work of tons of other composers. Yet another close friend of mine, who is also a performer, admits that an ideal performance is one that strives to conform to the conception of the composer. So, might it not be more appropriate to use the word artist for a composer rather than a performer?