A classical music experience has three creators. One third is the work of the composer, one third that of the performer, who transforms dots to music, and the final third is the contribution of the listener, who brings his own world to bear on the music. It is this three-way collaboration that creates any musical experience. In this reckoning the listener gets 1/3 of the credit (maybe he should get 1/3 of the royalties too, indexed of course to the intensity of the listening effort expended...? ;)
Things are different with the new kind of virtual music I write, where the roles of composer and "performer" are merged. There are only two co-creators here, me and the person listening to my CD. The proportions are 50/50. In this respect I, a "classical" composer, am joining the singer/songwriter crowd, but there's nothing new about that. We too had a "singer/songwriter" tradition (or rather a "player/composer" one). It was in fact the standard for most of musical history. Then, around 1830, a split occurred, and the role of a performer who plays other people's music was invented. I predict that this trend is about to be reversed, same as in popular music. Consider that almost no singer or band before the 60s wrote their own material. Now it is an exception if they don't.
For the first time ever, composers like me have the ability to produce completed works, much as painters or authors do, without having to shop my music to performers or conductors. We can also bypass the prohibitive costs and rigmarole of recording a live symphony orchestra. It’s hardly a difficult choice. All but 0.001 of composers would never have their composition even considered by a symphony orchestra.
But the DIY approach is much more than just getting a composer an audience. If it spreads it may fundamentally alter the dynamics between composer and listener.
As the quality and flexibility of sampled sounds continues to make quantum leaps, the bad name the early electronic music earned is less and less justified. The tonal quality of a simulated acoustic instrument may never be 100% equal to the real thing but it’s damn close now. What can be equal and often surpass the “real thing” is the quality of the performance. Working with my virtual orchestra I have unlimited time to refine nuances. I am not limited by a union contract or scheduling constraints. My work is not relegated to the customary half-hour rehearsal. When it’s done it will resemble what I had in mind the way a live orchestral performance could never even come close. And I am not even talking about the sneezes, cackles, latecomers, and the terrible seat you are in where all you can hear are the double basses.
I often think of those accounts of disastrous, excruciating first-performances of masterpieces by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or Bartok, botched by the “real thing”. But am I throwing out the baby with the bath water? Do those bad experiences justify the elimination of the performer, that middle-man, from the supply chain between me and my audience?
Two strong objections to what I propose are usually raised. First, that composers are not necessarily the best interpreters of their own works, and second, that their works benefit from the insights of performers.
The first assertion is just plainly wrong, an unjustifiable generalization. Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, all were stellar conductors as well as composers. The second argument though does have merit and deserves a consideration. Bartok was a superb pianist who often premiered his own works. The premiere of his second piano concerto however was an unqualified flop. When several years later he attended a performance of the same work by the young pianist Geza Anda, which received a standing ovation, Bartok remarked, only half sarcastically: “Well, you obviously understand my music better than I”.
So, are performers necessary even when composers of the future may not need them to perform?
Actually no. That function of shedding new light on a composition will most likely be taken over by the listeners themselves, thus further justifying that 50/50 split I mentioned earlier.
How? Easy-to-use tools already exist for intelligent listeners to modify any composition to their liking, adjusting tempo, timbre, balance, and even notes. What we don’t have yet is a cultural groundswell, a shifting of what it means to be an active listener. But that too is coming. Could someone 30 years ago have imagined that designing your greeting cards, retouching your photographs, making films, preparing tax returns, or publishing your book from start to finish could be casually done by you without professional help? Could tailoring music to your taste be so far behind?
The shift from "composing for performers" to "composing directly to listeners", the 50/50 collaboration, is most likely to send shivers down concert-going spines and the beleaguered marketing departments of symphony orchestras. But I say not to worry. Symphony orchestras will continue to play the same old tired stuff their aging patrons demand. The newer stuff no one really liked anyway. Give me Beethoven 7th, not that cacophony of Osvaldo Golijov. It’s like taking vitamins, good for you but certainly no fun.
And what about composers like me, the 99% that never stood a chance to even be considered as a vitamin? Well, we just get ourselves the latest music editing Internet tools and if our music is any good we’ll find amateur tinkerers with flair to go to work on our masterpieces. It can’t be worse than entrusting them to a yawning self-important conductor whose stinky feet I'd have to kiss for my half-hour rehearsal and the ensuing botched-up premiere cum last-ever-performance of my new symphony.
@Copyright Peter Elyakim Taussig, 2012. You may download materials from this site for private personal use only. For all other uses please contact to request permission in writing.
The Kvetching Factory
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