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!


Michael said...

Has commerce in some respect written the rules here? Or has classical music, like perhaps the art world, succumbed to a cult of personality? Few works exceed the name recognition of their composers, if their composers have any name recognition at all. So shorthand and salesmanship (Beethoven's name sells more tickets and fills more seats than the title "Creatures of Prometheus" etc.)may have gradually become a habit of mind. This is not quite so much the case with literature. For an unknown composer, the audience gets presumed value-added out of focusing on the composer, giving them permission to generalize an encounter with one piece to an encounter with the composer's work as a whole (the "heard or seen one, heard or seen them all" tendency can be strong with contemporary music). But you're right, and only report what countless other artists in all fields have reported: a work that is successful, becomes itself, takes on a life of its own in the process of creation; it resembles its parent's other offspring as well as its parent, but is identical to neither. Brava, Maestra, on an excellent and I think groundbreaking piece. May "Caprio" enjoy a rousing success at its premiere.

Maestra Kim said...

Thanks Michael.
I notice with painting, sculpture, architecture – the concrete arts – you may have the creator as an icon. For example, “I own a Dali, or a Warhol.” Music does push ticket sales on the backs of their icons!

A composer colleague mentioned allowing performers some liberties, “but there are limits.” This had me thinking about the commerce aspect. Anyone can go into Performers Music and buy a copy of Caprio and do what they will. I have no control of a work once I offer it up for public sale. The idea of “limits” is an illusion. OR will there be a day when you must click to accept a “User Agreement” stating that as purchaser of this product you will present it to the best of your abilities and with “reasonable fidelity to the composer’s intent.” Unfortunately I could see copyright laws going that way. (sigh)

Michael said...

So then who owns the work of art? If a creator refuses to release her/his work to the public, s/he owns it as much, or more, as the collector who buys a painting and only shows it to friends. Once a work is published--for now!--"limits" are either polite fictions or subjects for litigation. The creator only becomes another interpreter of the work, and some of the prestige of the work (and the creator, as icon/signifier of a collector, interpreter, or attendee's sophistication and artistic sensibility) comes up for grabs. And I think part of what you're asking is, is there anything wrong with this?
What one rarely hears questioned, other than by you, is the validity of the possessive. Sometimes people talk of an interpreter owning a piece or a role just as our collector thinks s/he owns a Dali. The piece itself, the role itself, remains inviolately itself, both open and closed....I like a phrase I encountered today of Saul Bellow's, describing the writer at work, in this case in an essay: "The argument developing here [he might have named a work of any kind resisting and allowing itself to be composed], using me as its instrument..."

Mark Warhol said...

Well, in regards to limits, should a participating artist make a decision I cannot tolerate, then I suggest to the artist that a change be made. This can lead to the artist convincing me that his/her approach is valid, the artist changing his/her approach to my way of thinking, a compromise being reached between my approach and the artist’s approach, or the artist refusing to change. All the above results are okay except the last. However, I cannot always do anything about the last possibility. Early in the rehearsal process I would replace the artist. Late in the rehearsal process I have to live with the results as the only other option is to cancel the show. However, I can assure you that should the latter results come about, namely, I am forced to live with the artist’s approach which I find difficult to tolerate, I will never work with that artist again. Actually, there is an artist who participated in the “Memoires and Fantasies” program with whom I will never work again for this reason.

In the case of your conducting of my music on the “Memoires and Fantasies” program, you made decisions that were different than mine but your decisions worked musically. For example, the opening measures of “Jeanne’s Fantasy” was played differently than I had envisioned, as you were reminded by the musicians, but your approach was valid and that I found interesting. I would hire you to conduct my music again in a flash!

As long as I am alive I am the final arbitrator of how my music is performed. I create content, others interpret this content under my watchful eye. After I am dead, who cares? I am dead.

Maestra Kim said...

Mark - I recognize your quip about the ease of working with dead composers. Maybe we do prefer them, because they can't complain.

However - Long live composer Mark Warhol!