Sins of Memory?

This week I had a rare chance to see a piece of mine performed from memory. It was exhilarating on many levels, one being the lack of distracting music stand. But it was also rare to hear some performers whipping through a piece of mine, thinking to myself, “These people know my music better than I do right now.” Of course I wrote the thing, but having since moved on to other pieces my exact memory of every bar remains vastly inferior to a group that has just committed the music to memory.

This prompts me to wonder: how normal a reaction is this among composers? Are there those among us who retain a very clear aural imprint of every compositional effort on the minute level? At the other extreme, has anyone ever forgotten having written a piece? I have definitely forgotten the exact notation for some of my own highly-textural passages while at the same time remembering the music seemingly in full. Does someone like George Crumb have a photographic imprint of every one of their scores, or is it more general than that?

These kinds of questions interest me because while we composers are alive, it’s basically up to us to be the chief advocates for our music. We may encounter others that support this journey, but the buck stops with us, especially as far as the intent of the score or other defining record is concerned. As Frank J. Oteri wrote some weeks ago about a very nearly lost composition from his youth, our methods of preserving such archival materials outside our own skulls can prove just as fragile as our imperfect and frequently treasonous memory. We can buy a lot of USB backup sticks or backup utilities, or even send our scores to the Library of Congress. But this week I realized that whatever the form of data storage, there’s something magical about that data’s retrieval and performance by another person with another mind. When I hear a group of performers “download” my own coded compositional data and for a few hours or days incorporate that data into their own mental circuitry it absolutely sends chills through my spine. It is the simple connection of meeting someone who knows your work as well as you do (or at least, as you once did).

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6 thoughts on “Sins of Memory?

  1. mclaren

    Memorizing the notes to play doesn’t mean a performer knows diddly squat about the piece. Performers are bus drivers — they’re interchangeable and unimportant. The composer understands why the notes got placed there.

    Performers have no idea, for example, that the piece started out 3 bars earlier but those initial 3 bars had to get cut out to make way for that tempo canon that presages the end of the piece, where the subject returns in stretto along with the inversion of the augmentation of the accompaniment that shows up at the middle of the piece. Performers have no idea why the augmentation got moved from the start of the piece to the middle, or why the stretti use progressive augmentations of 110% note length.

    Having tried 115% note length and 120% note length and 90% note length, the composer understands why. The other versions didn’t work. Having tried the augmentation at the start of the piece and then in the middle, the composer knows it works in the middle but not elsewhere.

    The performers drive the bus: the composer built the city through whose streets the bus travels. Let’s not over-glorify the bus drivers.

    Reply
  2. pgblu

    Briefly, there is no shame at all in forgetting some of your compositions, in whole or in part. The works are judged on their own merits, not on the composer’s. However, (and this is at least as obvious as my 2nd sentence) it makes sense to closely study any work for which you’re expected to attend rehearsals (thus reattaining the status of a knowledgeable authority), if they are so lucky as to be performed again.

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  3. scottleee

    I’d like to disagree with you mclaren. While the performers may not know every failed step in the compositional process, they can certainly know the finished piece as well as you do. Sure, memorization by rote doesn’t guarantee that, but most performers that take the time to memorize a piece also take the time to dig deep into it. In fact, many performers I’ve worked with have offered insights into improving sections that I could never find satisfying solutions for. Performers shouldn’t be treated simply as machines that play whatever you give them. Instead the relationship between performers and composers can be more symbiotic, to the benefit of the composition.

    Scott Lee

    http://www.scottleemusic.info

    Reply
  4. mclaren

    Scott Lee remarks: Performers shouldn’t be treated simply as machines that play whatever you give them.

    True. Machines don’t play wrong notes at the wrong time.

    Reply
  5. harold.meltzer

    Performers are not interchangeable and unimportant—nor, for that matter, are bus drivers. There are media available for anyone who would like to avoid a partnership with singers and instrumentalists.

    Reply
  6. mdwcomposer

    “These people know my music better than I do right now.”

    Amen to that. I almost always feel that way about performers. They’ve been living with the details of my piece for some time, I’m onto 4 pieces beyond the one they are working on. I can help them as any coach can, because I’m listening outside the ensemble.

    I know I miss note mistakes. I just don’t hear that way in real time. I hear rhythm better than pitch, and I’m keenly aware when performers are just going note-to-note, without making the larger line / gesture that tells the story and makes the music sing.

    Reminds me of a funny story that I think I’m remembering correctly: some actor asked director James Ivory about the reading of some line. He said “I dunno. You’re the actor.” Woody Allen is notorious for telling his actors “If you don’t like that line, just say some other words.”

    I’ve found it instructive to play my own pieces. When I’m working out the notes and trying to get it learned, I find that my own familiarity with the piece and how it was put together is never as helpful as I hope, and certainly isn’t any short cut to getting the thing learned. It is somewhat helpful in shaping the larger structure. Knowing how many of the the technical (pitch, rhythm, how the material was first generated, etc.) choices were made doesn’t give me that much insight in how I’m going to make it happen in the real world.

    I don’t forget pieces, but like you, Dan, I remember the music and flow rather than the details. It’s also a question of interest: my most absorbing piece is the one I’m currently writing. 2nd is the one I’m going to write next. Way down on the list is something earlier. Of course, I have an ego, so interest in earlier stuff never fades, really, but it doesn’t engage me the same way current projects do.

    I also suspect that most of us live along a spectrum: some of us are more interested in the process of composing and care less about the end result. Others value the end result quite highly and are less interested the process once the piece is finished.

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