Composer Identity Crisis

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?

12 thoughts on “Composer Identity Crisis

  1. JKG

    Art…
    Carl Sandburg once said, “If you squeezed all the art outta me, there wouldn’t be enough left to spit.” I was actually a bit sad at some of your comments, as if I would have expected you to know better concerning what it really means for one to be a real artist (not just playing at it). The very notion that you need to give pause to this consideration, Frank, is mitigated only by the hope you are being strictly philosophical about the matter. A composer’s work should be performed to some degree – I know of no examples of a composer who composed in a complete vacuum, yet even then I might allow their expressions to be “artistic.” There are plenty of performers who call themselves artists who really aren’t; they’re just playing at it, or they’re into performing strictly for the money. That would be the same case for some songwriters and film composers, yet I must allow they might be artists with some projects, and not so with others. There are certainly those who call themselves “composers” whose work for some is not worth the time to listen to, but that does not diminish their God-given right to express what they feel. Of course, that doesn’t mean their “music” has any appeal to anyone but themselves or their mother, either.

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  2. ydandaman

    I would actually be more inclined to expand the definition of composer to include any sort of improvisation or what have you. The more music I experience, the more I think it all springs from a similar impulse and goes through a similar creative process (although at different speeds). I would even say people who only perform music are “composing”, by creatively adding as many (or more) elements to the final musical product as the “composer”. Most of what we hear as music is not contained in written scores, and I think anybody who contributes to the final aural product is a composer. Not that I’m removing my name from the top of my scores or anything, I just think it’s perhaps a healthier way to view the situation.

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  3. Armando

    You make an interesting point, Frank, but in my view you’ve got your labels reversed. I think the term “artist” is thrown around far too liberally today (as is the term “genius,” which, much to my grammatical dismay, has become an adjective–as in “that’s a genius (sic) piece”). There are many (too many?) composers active in the U.S. today, regardless of how one defines the term. There are, in my opinion, far fewer artists (or Artists with a capital “A”).

    It is my view that to be an artist one’s work needs to reach a certain level that is beyond analysis. Any piece can be appreciated on an analytical basis and a composer can be a great craftsperson without necessarily achieving a level of dyonisian expression in their work which would raise them to the level of “artist.” (By the same token there are plenty of works that are inspired, again, whatever that means, but which lack a certain technical mastery that keeps them grounded to earth.) It’s the difference between, say, a Muzio Clementi and a Mozart or a Carl Czerny and a Schubert.
    To become an artist, I would argue, is not up to the composer (or painter, or writer, or choreographer, or film maker, or instrumental/vocal performer, for that matter, etc.) but up to the audience. In that sense I agree with you and your mystery “well established” composer; only your terminology, I think, is backwards.

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  4. glennfreeman

    Artists paint. Composers write stuff down on paper. Performers realize what composers wrote down on paper. Artists paint. Writers write.

    The caste system you are trying to conceptualize in your piece is of no use to anyone.

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  5. vachon321

    “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?”

    Just because one performs one’s own music, doesn’t make it less “art”; or, for that matter, the composer/performer, less a composer. However, I must confess when I was writing song cycles for other singers, I felt more “comfortable” using the term composer for myself. Since I now perform my own music (and it is not “new” music), I admit I am sometimes at a loss as to what I should call myself. Somehow, composer seems a bit too grand. But….songwriter doesn’t seem right either for what I do.

    Last, there are many composers who confined their work to one genre, take Hugo Wolf for example, who mostly wrote songs. I don’t think you can fairly confine the the term “composer” to someone who only writes for a “variety of forces.”

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  6. Frank J. Oteri

    Glenn’s assertion above that I’m setting up a caste system is a bit of a polemical stretch here and one that calling attention to might only further fan the virtual flames of pixelated vitriol, but I still feel a clarification is in order.

    One of the things that is wonderful about “new music” is how undefinable it is. But that very wonderful thing is also a large part of what makes it all the more problematic in the so-called outside world where most things are pretty clearly defined and delineated.

    Part of what set me off yesterday was a discussion about how iTunes lists information for downloadable tracks into artist and song. The artist is always the performer which actually makes sense in a pop music paradigm for which this system was designed. (Another one of my pet peeves, which is as much linguistic as it is musicological, is the nasty habit of folks who call every single kind of musical composition a song. But I’ll save that for another day.)

    Yes, of course, the multidimensional contributions to a musical end product—composer(s), performers (including conductors), commissioners, presenters, producers—are all important. In the realm of classical music, we frequently deify dead composers and glorify the living performers of the works of those dead composers at the expense of everyone else involved with the end product. Are Herbert Von Karajan and Beethoven really the only two people responsible for those recorded symphony cycles that are so revered?

    That said, it is hardly trying to invoke a caste system, to ask what a composer is and what the composer’s contribution is to a musical experience. And I don’t think it is one that I or anyone else can answer with any kind of finality. The debate about whether to describe oneself as a composer as opposed to a singer-songwriter is an interesting one. Why does Hugo Wolf get the “c” status over folks like Stephen Foster or Stevie Wonder? In my book all three of them are composers. But then again each of them wrote more than songs and their music, songs and otherwise, have been performed by countless other people. That said, if I chanced upon a manuscript or an original recorded improvisation by someone that was never listened to or performed by anyone else, I would probably consider both of those things musical compositions. And I would consider the person who created them a composer. Perhaps being a composer is about the potential for your music to be played by and listened to by other people, but life doesn’t always work out so neatly.

    And yet still, this word we’re all so passionately fighting over is sadly arcane. If you tell people that you’re a composer, a lot of folks will have no idea what you’re talking about. And the same is true if you describe the music you write as “classical music.” (Mozart, right?) Or even worse, new music. (Isn’t any music written this year new music? How can the music of Morton Feldman, who died nearly twenty years ago, be considered new music while all the stuff that people born after 1987 post to MySpace isn’t? etc.)

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  7. dalgas

    But Frank, if your tell somebody you’re a systems engineer or a brazer nobody’ll know what it means, either.

    As far as I see it, a composer (in whatever kind of music) is the person responsible for the creation of the piece, the performer for the interpretation. As much as either of them participates in some aspect of the other, there can be a mixing of the two functions in one or the other person. In totally “free” improv, every performer might rightly be fully considered a composer as well. Composition is the impetus that creates the musical situation, performance/interpretation is what finishes it. So conversely, no matter how “free” a John Cage piece is he’s always the composer, because he lays the foundation for everything the performer does. Even though the performer creates sounds that even Cage couldn’t predict, the performer never creates the initial condition.

    Seen that way, it’s not so hard to accept the terms and distinctions.

    Steve Layton

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  8. dalgas

    I think Armando’s line:

    It is my view that to be an artist one’s work needs to reach a certain level that is beyond analysis.

    is one of the most profoundly succinct definitions of what and “artist” and Art itself is. If people can measure/define/figure-it-out, it’s all craft; but if there’s some part that resists all of that, we’ve made Art.

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  9. JKG

    Beyond the pale…
    So, if the only craftsmen worth calling artists are the ones who create the indescribable, then how does one call any composer an artist who has upheld tradition? No, his seems a lot like the patent justification for freakishness passing itself off as “art” in this age of political correctness and inclusivity; or rather, those without real talent lording it over those who do. It is possible, however, that those who believe strictly in whatever is unique and outlandish, do not know the first thing about real art – in that the only expressions they care about are their own.

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  10. dalgas

    “JKG” wrote: So, if the only craftsmen worth calling artists are the ones who create the indescribable, then how does one call any composer an artist who has upheld tradition?

    Why, if they’ve also “created the indescribable”, we call them artists. “Upholding the tradition” has nothing to do with it. Uphold or not, and in just about any degree; art has a chance of happening anywhere along that scale.

    The rest of what you wrote just wanders off into the old screed. That the unanalyzable or indescribable equates with with “freakishness” or the “unique and outlandish” is your own phantom and polemic.

    Steve Layton

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  11. JKG

    And lest I be taken to be…
    Screeding the same ol’ same old. P_lease allow me to assure all of you I do definitely recognize value in the unanalyzable. Frankly, in most cases, where academic music cannot be analyzed, it turns out to be useless. Even a musically awkward piece could offer something of value to the discriminating listener – the truly “talented” composer can take all sorts of techniques and make them sound just great. How come when some of you polemecize, that’s just great, but when I do it, it’s polemicising? *scratches head*

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  12. Orlando Fiol

    I think that so much goes into the composition process that it’s difficult to demarcate the beginning and final duties of a composer. Consider that many folk tunes cannot be traced to specific composers, and yet, anyone who adds a new verse has thereby become a member of the composers’ collective for that song. What about Indian classical gats? The gat doesn’t come fully equipped with all the sawaal jawaab, tihais and other developmental strategies that form it into a full fledged performance. Is Art Tatum, who rarely if ever wrote songs from scratch, less of composer because of his treatment of jazz standards anymore than a Baroque composer could write a chaconne on a ground bass?

    I’ve had a perpetual struggle with my apparent lack of motivation or even ability to write music down and develop pieces from start to finish. I strangely have no problem sitting down and improvising for hours, sometimes along such strict lines and parameters that I might as well be composing in a Western classical sense. Part of the trouble here might be cultural and economic. The
    line between performers and composer was always fine until that point in history where composers demanded exclusive control over note choices and music structure, dividing up the labor of realizing music into composers writing and musicians interpreting. If I were performing a Beethoven sonata and cut out or rearranged entire sections, if I tightened up the sloppy counterpoint in fugal passages or transposed development fragments, I would be tampering with a
    composition precisely because I’d be making some choices for myself that Beethoven had already presumably finalized. And yet, if I reharmonize a jazz standard or transpose the bridge into another key, people think me clever.

    So, why this double standard? Part of it may have to do with the cult of the classical interpreter. Composers have long sought to minimize public attention paid to performers. Indeed, with most contemporary music, I am rarely attached to specific performers or even recordings, although I can clearly distinguish among performances. Perhaps, this is because performances of contemporary classical music are becoming less unique. For instance, I prefer the original recording of Reich’s Music For Eighteen Musicians, mostly because it’s better mixed, the vocals more in tune and the overall tempo is more to my liking. Yet, consider how radically Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur
    Schnabel’s tempi for Beethoven’s “Moonlight” differ.

    If a composer is an amalgamation of everything he’s ever heard plus everything yet to be sounded, why should he get the final word over something that is ultimately destined to enter a collective repertoire? I think most classical composers assumed that their works would be tampered with, cadenzas added, tempi accelerated or slackened, repeats taken or left out, ornaments added, bass lines augmented with octaves, etc. There are accounts of Chopin performing his own works in radically different interpretations from what their notation would suggest. So, why should the composer be the sole musical arbiter of a collective experience before a piece enters the classical repertoire? Why should it be wrong for interpreters to change dynamic markings, elongate sections, cut out the fat or even change notes? And, in so doing, would that turn many of the best and most judicious classical performers into at least co-composers?

    Perhaps, this is the true fear. If performers are encouraged to improvise, flesh out, add and cut, substitute tempi or dynamic markings, they might fancy themselves composers too. These new co-composers would then theoretically compete for commissions, composer professorships, opera directorships, etc.

    Part of classical music’s cultural legacy is the division of labor between composition and performance, which obviously arose because pieces could not be recorded and transportation of entire orchestras, choruses and opera casts (for instance) was prohibitively expensive. Thus, it was cheaper to develop a culture of local performance rather than export a single performance as a definitive standard, much as we do with recordings today. Consider how this
    dissemination model differs from that of rock or pop. No one needs the Rolling Stones’ relatively few original compositions to be performed by anyone else. Keith Richards doesn’t break his back trying to get garage bands the world over to memorize his catchy licks for performances two days later. Some recordings like Sgt. Pepper’s or your average string laden disco arrangement could only rarely be performed in public for special occasions because of the forces and rehearsal time they would require. How would it be, for instance, if specific orchestras zeroed in on specific repertoire and toured the world playing only that? One could then eventually speak of audiences awaiting with wrapped attention the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of the Tchaikovsky sixth symphony or some such. Steve Reich and Philip Glass definitely have the right idea, putting together their own ensembles and thereby supervising performances in minute ways impossible for composers rehearsing with orchestras on short-term contracts.

    The strict division of labor between composition and performance only serves to decrease the slice of pie that either side gets. Were more composers willing and able to perform or maintain performing ensembles, they’d have more control over accuracy of performance and stylistic issues in the interpretation of their works. Were performers encouraged to alter compositions, compose commentaries or variations on previous works or rework motifs from age-old compositions, they might command more of the music world’s sincere attention. Perhaps, the uptight Western world’s obsession with Classical and Romantic era repertory stalwarts is partially cultivated by performers who at least mythologically recall a time when Liszt dashed out operatic paraphrases and Busoni transcribed Bach. Perhaps, performers secretly wish to become more involved in actual musical choices rather than merely glossing the page with a pianissimo here or an agogic accent there. Perhaps, part of the listening public’s frustration with performance uniformity stems from the competition culture that is virtually the only avenue for soloists to launch careers and orchestral players to land prestigious tenures in major orchestras. Perhaps, if performers didn’t learn
    from an early age to soften their jagged interpretational edges to please judges, we’d have less of a boring recording glut.

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