Performing as Composing

As regular readers of this column know, in the past few years I’ve begun to perform music in public for the first time. What began as accompaniment for performance art gradually developed into group improvisations and finally into unaccompanied shows and engagements as a concerto soloist. Emotionally, this process has been simultaneously incredibly difficult and rewarding.

As with nearly every aspect of my compositional life, I began this process by questioning my artistic reasons for following this path. Since I hadn’t studied any instrument regularly, I lacked the basic skill sets that are second nature to most professional musicians, and maintained an utter ignorance of proper practicing techniques and strategies to learn new repertoire. While most pre-teen musicians can far surpass my manual dexterity, I could bring two things to the table: an ability to hear and control musical structure in interesting ways, and an interest in producing unusual sounds. Over time, I began to realize that these latter interests allowed me to create performances that could fully express certain compositional ideas while being of interest to a small segment of listeners. The fact that I am horrible at the sorts of musical tasks at which most people excel opened up alternative paths for sonic exploration and forced me to create a sound that fully reflects my personality and compositional interests.

I find it incredibly difficult to step on stage in order to perform my own music. A huge part of me expects someone to point at me and shout “charlatan” or to at least boo vociferously and correctly. Of course, I had similar fears when I began teaching and only overcame them through years of experience, so that at this point in time I’m confident that I’ve thoroughly researched the course materials and their intellectual foundations and that I belong in front of a classroom. As a performer I still feel like an under-skilled neophyte, but I’m gradually coming to trust that I can provide a unique experience, that my unusual background and proclivities allow me to approach performance in a way that certain people will appreciate and that others will at least accept.

As a listener, the pieces that I most greatly treasure are those that create sound worlds that I’ve never heard before. While these original sounds can be produced through harmonic (especially microtonal), melodic, and/or rhythmic means, I have always been drawn most strongly to interesting timbres. My own performances have given me the ability to scratch this itch, to question the basic function of instruments in order to force them to produce sounds entirely different from those they were designed to create. I’ve found that I can augment the tinkling of the toy piano by bowing, strumming, and plucking it (among various other techniques) until it transcends its original purpose, and I similarly can explore other instruments. I had always wanted the sort of composer/performer relationship that would allow for collaborative conversations on how to experiment with the basics of performance itself, and now, by assuming both roles, I have created this relationship.

My ability to fully explore the subtle gradations of these instruments opened up surprising new possibilities for me. Not only could I create new timbral possibilities, but I also began to get a better feel for how these related to other musical parameters. By exploring the distinctions between the overtones created by playing specific notes at various volumes or in different ways, I could create new harmonic worlds. By shaping the excess noise produced by these unusual performance techniques, I found that I could create new types of melodies. Finally, I began to feel that my timbral, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic languages could emanate from a single source.

As I discovered these new methods of producing sound on my own instrument, I began to apply these techniques for exploration to my written compositions. Physically grappling with a violin or guitar allowed me to draw the same sorts of confluences between the musical parameters while composing for string-based ensembles. I learned how to ask better questions when approaching projects for ensembles that for practical reasons wouldn’t allow me unlimited access to copies of the instruments themselves or when my knowledge of the basic performance technique on the instrument was miniscule enough that such access wouldn’t be useful.

Thus, my newly discovered abilities as a performer have directly altered my compositional output and have provided me with an outlet for experimentation that I look forward to continuing to explore. For these reasons, I’ll continue looking for opportunities to step onstage, despite my deep-seated fears.

4 thoughts on “Performing as Composing

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Thanks for opening up about this. I find your commentaries increasingly powerful, revealing and adult. No whining. Good.

    This is a really touchy area for me. I never wanted to perform, ever. It wasn’t scary; I simply didn’t enjoy it, wasn’t a performing personality, and had no worthwhile applause-generating skills. Over the years I did built up performing tools that I enjoyed … I was once a very good high tenor (lost it after performing the Haydn “Seven Last Words” solo with a high fever), and still do extended voice and vocal improv. I was close to virtuoso on recorder family for a few years, but that was for collegial fun and community concerts (I did a mean Vivaldi piccolo concerto). My conducting is convincing, but I don’t feel I’m performing because I’m not there for anyone but the musicians singing or playing. They’re doing the work; I’m just cleaning the lens for the photo, so to speak. And I can play a few instruments well enough to sit at the back of an ensemble.

    My performing aversion also comes from the knowledge that there is a whole lot of bad music written by performers for their own axe, that kind of ‘inside baseball’ writing that produces one or two pieces that might survive a career full of composition. The self-absorbed improv-gone-notational. I wanted to avoid that.

    So now what? Having been born into the era when composers composed and living long enough to be in the era when the non-performing composer is dismissed if not disdained, I am left with little recoverable performance skill. That’s my deep-seated fear — that my music will be ignored not because it isn’t compelling but because I can’t advocate for it by performing it.

    Dennis

    Reply
  2. j404

    This ‘working from your own toolbox’ is something I think of mainly in terms of recording. One of my long-term compositional goals is to build a sound world out of my own vocal, instrumental, sound-synthesizing, and sound-editing abilities. With DAWs and other readily accessible recording technologies this is totally doable; any individual so inclined could create a sound world of Mahlerian proportions with as little as his voice and a mic.

    It’s a little strange to me that there aren’t as many one-man recording projects in art music as there are in popular music (given art music’s fetish for composerly autonomy and its emphasis on fixed texts) and I was about to explain why (IMO) but I don’t have time. Anyway, if I had to put my neck on the line and make one musicological prediction, it’d be that the widespread adoption of DIY approaches to composition — whether recorded or for performance — will be one of the main things for distant-future music students to remember about 21st-century music.

    Reply
  3. Ellen

    Great post. How exciting to discover this new perspective. I (re)discovered this spring that performing my own music is SO rewarding, yet uniquely terrifying! Rarely have I felt so exposed in front of an audience. Your post inspires me to continue to push myself in this direction. Thanks for all the reflective writing lately.

    Reply
  4. Ted King-Smith

    Very enlightening!

    I certainly do share your fears of performing my own works. I often find myself torn between whether I should strictly follow what I created, as if I hit “play” in my mind and recall my ideas (the composer), or if I should find a different way to express the piece (the performer). Ultimately I think this becomes an internal compromise between the two, and probably won’t be the same from one piece to another. For instance, when I performed in a wind ensemble piece of my own I played close to the ink, but when I performed an unaccompanied solo that I err… wrote (it was more of a slightly organized improvisation which was then notated) I find that I can deviate considerably. Parts of the piece are intentionally unclear, giving the performer in me a chance to reinterpret it at almost every performance.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.