Recently, I sat down with a colleague who wanted me to look at a song he wrote a few years ago that had been performed several times by a notable soprano and pianist. Before he sent it out again, he wanted me to look at the piano part and suggest any revisions that might make it clearer for the next player. I love doing this sort of thing because I get to know a piece even if I may not perform it, and I love the dialogue with the composer. To be clear, the song is already wonderful, and the suggestions I made had more to do with simple editing and my own limitations as a pianist than any problems with the score.
In our conversation, we discussed sections of the song that are quite difficult for the pianist. I told him that while I always discuss any issues the work presents with the composer, I also know that other performers do not feel comfortable doing this, and, given the choice, they might just leave something out (as the previous pianist had done) rather than ask the composer if it could be changed. Wouldn’t he, as the composer, prefer to make those revisions personally, rather then leave it to the whim of the next performer? He admitted that he heard parts of the score as orchestral and that was reflected in the piano part. I suggested simple editing and re-arranging of the score between hands, which might make the part more playable and less daunting to the next pianist. He was very open to these suggestions, and I hope that the score is better for it.
As performers, I think we are trained to hold composers in such high regard that we are often afraid to speak to them. Some performers even tell me that they don’t feel a need to work with composers at all. “They will hear it at the concert” is something I have heard from more than a few colleagues. After all, we spend years practicing the works of dead composers with whom we have no contact. As artists, shouldn’t we be allowed to give our own interpretation? Is it better to work with the composer or to approach new music the same way we would any other piece? Not everyone agrees.
In my professional experience, most composers I know are very gracious and open regarding their work, and they will happily discuss their pieces and how they wish them to be performed. I also think that most performers try very hard to play it the way the composer wants. We are not always looking for change when we call them up—just clarification. If we are dedicated to the score, then we really want to give it a great performance. I believe this positive communication is essential to creating a successful new work. While I am always very nervous to play a piece for a composer for the first time, in the end I find that this is why I choose to play new music. It’s all about the dialogue, and we both have so much to gain. Isn’t this a great opportunity for both of us?