Saturday, October 15, 2011

Do you play Diehnelt or Caprio? Revamping the role of composer.


With an approaching premiere of the work premiere of CAPRIO, for oboe and strings I’ve had lively conversations with performers and music-lovers. One striking question keeps appearing: Does the performer play Diehnelt the composer, or Caprio the work-entity?

Music, unlike literature and theater, tends to perceive the composer - or “the composer’s intent” - as the aspect to dwell on, explore, and attempt to ‘channel’ while preparing a piece for performance. We think almost exclusively in this manner. How else could it be?

I love crossing over to theater for ideas on the art of presenting live performances from a text-source. In theater, it is the character and its role which receives in-depth study by the performer. How do I, as Othello, portray and bring to life this character with a sense of understanding, depth, and truth? The actor rarely thinks: How do I portray the playwright? The playwright continues as an essential part of the process, yet remains behind the scenes, if you will.

We speak of actors owning or embodying a role. So-and-so’s Othello, another actor’s Nora. Rarely do we speak of an actor being a great Shakespeare, or identifying a performer with Ibsen.

With music, we leave out the intermediary character role. Here, the performer presents the playwright. We play Beethoven. We debate performers’ versions of Mozart; we give artists ownership of their Wagner, their Chopin, their Bach. This direct text-maker to stage-performer connection is unique to music, coming to the fore in the early 1800’s as composers, and instrumental music, gained status as being capable of independently speaking ‘truths.’

But when working with musicians on my own works in the present era, I find it odd they insist on reproducing me in the music. For example, Caprio is not me in guise of an oboist and string orchestra. It’s Caprio – almost a living character by itself. Indeed, the creative compositional process seems one of ‘bringing into life’ of a new entity.

I remember very strongly the reactions I went through while composing Postscript for solo cello . The plan in my head was not happening. Instead of moving toward the key-center, character-change I had planned out, the piece just wouldn’t ‘go there.’ After struggling numerous times to make the music stick to my plans I gave up and let the cello line go where it wanted. This experience seems in line with the experience of writers who may have a specific plan for a novel, but find that a character high-jacks the plot and compels its own unfolding. As with Caprio too, at some point this character propelled the music line forward to fulfill the character’s intent. (There may be an illusive art to knowing when to quiet the composer’s intent and listen carefully to the created entity.)

Yes, my works will always have Kim-isms, just as any playwright and their era has a particular style. I will always be interested in the use of time, give attention to how sounds combine to create metaphors, and resist the urge for unnecessary repetition.

However, this being the 21st century, I’d like to offer musicians the task of getting less inside the head of the composer and more into questioning “what does this musical ‘character’ ask of me?" Creating compositions of this sort gives the performer homework and decisions. Rather excitingly, it allows for more than one authentic way to present a work.

I encourage performers to take the risk and challenge to chew over the character/s that each piece presents. I will do my best to provide each member of the cast with lines worth speaking, worth mulling over for nuggets of depth and beauty.

Fortunately, Caprio is in good hands this week. Oboist Joni Day and Music Director Stephen Blackwelder are both capable of acknowledging the composer while courageously tending to the spirit of the music’s intent. We will hear a living, breathing, authentic Caprio!