Issue 1: Music Ownership

By R. Andrew Lee

This is not an essay about the legality or even ethics of ownership of musical artifacts. I hope that you buy directly from artists (Apple and Amazon don’t need your money), and I hope that you do not readily share recordings or scores without consent. Beyond that, I’ve little else to say on the subject for now. No, this essay concerns owning the music in the purest sense, by possessing its very essence. Many composers naturally feel an ownership concerning their music; they are the ones who bring music into existence, and it is their name that has the privilege of the possessive when both the composer and piece are named. Performers, too, often feel that they own the music. They are, after all, creating art out of mere pieces of paper. Both sides are important 1 —composing and performing at its best can feel like an extension of the self 2 —but being unable to let go of that ownership can be an enormous hinderance as well.

Composers

As a performer, I believe it is my job to own the music, to possess it so utterly that it seems to be mine and mine alone. The gap between me and the music should be nonexistent. In other words, there really isn’t a lot of room for you. Yes, I am aware of the importance of your role, and no, I don’t want your job. I’m just saying that, at the end of the day, you really do want me to take possession of what was at one point your music.

I once heard a composer in a masterclass say that the performers had delivered an interpretation that was “over 95%” of what he wanted. He seemed awfully excited, and the students took that as high praise. Ridiculous. I can forgive the performers a bit given their student status, but did they really believe that the quality of their interpretation could be judged by how close they were to achieving 100% of the composer’s intentions? (The composer is always right?) And did the composer believe that eliminating the thoughts and will of the performers was the way to achieve the best possible performance?

I mention this as an extreme example, knowing that many of you composers would be surprised to hear that. Still, I assume that you must have a really good idea of what the music is ‘supposed’ to sound like and that hearing alternative interpretations must be jarring. I also assume (based on anecdotal evidence) that you get really excited when you hear things in your music that you didn’t know where there in the first place. Good music not only survives a variety of perspectives, but actually seems to thrive. Moreover, no matter how much you may want performers to be perfect conveyors of (your) perfect interpretation, we are human (just like you), and I find it hard to believe that you would prefer perfect little robots to imperfect, but decidedly human performers.

There are two big ways I see that composers try to squeeze out the performer. The first, and most obvious, is when communicating with performers directly. Oh the temptation that must be present for you when a performer asks what you think, particularly in a rehearsal setting. So many things are not quite as you would like them, and choosing what to correct in a limited amount of time must be difficult. But be careful. There may truly be a couple things that we did that were wrong, and many more things that conflict with your notions about the music, but it has to be a dialogue (same goes for you, performers!). Correct those things that are wrong, and then tell us why you hear the other things the way you do. If you want a compelling performance, the interpretation, the music, must belong to the performer. It is that possession and command of the music that enraptures and excites an audience.

The second way is more subtle and concerns the notation in your scores. Musical indications are important, and we can obtain a considerable amount from them, but how many are necessary? I am not saying that all composers should strip such indications to a bare minimum, despite my preference for a classical-era level of musical indications. No, a considerable number of such markings may well be essential to your music, but again, be wary of squeezing out the performer and his or her ideas. 3 Perhaps, once a piece is nearing completion, it would be worthwhile to reconsider the necessity of some musical indications and delete a few. The end result may very well be better. 4

Of course, this requires a great deal of trust on your part, doesn’t it? And we inevitably break that trust frequently, don’t we? I suppose there is always my first footnote to consider.

Performers

That was fun to read, wasn’t it? I bet you smiled when you read that performers create “art out of mere pieces of paper.” Unfortunately, despite everything I just wrote, I don’t believe that we can or should completely own the music. Don’t get me wrong, when you are performing, you have to own the music; total possession is the goal. But that does not mean that your ownership is exclusive.

Allow me to digress a bit with a personal example. William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes were originally recorded by Neely Bruce, who premiered the pieces and worked with the composer extensively. It was his recording that made me fall in love with those pieces and began my love affair (obsession?) with minimal music. I knew the recording inside and out, and it was very influential when I began to play the pieces myself. Then, in 2009, Bruce Brubaker released a recording, Time Curve, which included 12 of the 24 preludes. It was a markedly different interpretation than Neely’s (or mine), and at first I really didn’t know what to think. In hindsight, though, I learned a lot from that recording. My interpretation improved as I heard new possibilities that I had never considered, and while my playing is still probably closer to the original recording, I am enormously in debt to both.

I use this example to say that we cannot become so possessed by our ownership of a composition that we fail to hear the validity of and learn from different interpretations. Yes, I know that we’ve spent hours upon hours in the practice room, plumbed to the depths of the score, and schizophrenically argued with ourselves to arrive at our conclusions, but that doesn’t mean we have the exclusive truth. It is a difficult balance to achieve, because we have to know that our ideas are the best when we are on stage, but we must also be open to alternatives every other minute of the day.

The other, even more insidious problem with ownership on the performer’s side is when we negatively affect the composers by being territorial. The problem seems to be that as (new music) performers, we have a tendency to view others as competitors. There is good reason for this. First, there are, well, competitions, and second, there aren’t enough gigs to go around. We (or at least I) don’t necessarily feel comfortable when other performers start encroaching on our ‘territory,’ and then no one wins.

As a new music performer, it feels good to promote the music of living composers. It (and I apologize for the hubris inherent in what is to follow) feels a bit like doing a good deed. “I’m promoting your music and your career. You’re welcome.” But for all those warm, fuzzy feelings, I am uncomfortable sharing scores even when I know the composer would encourage me to do so. 5 Usually I’ll just refer the performer to the composer and wash my hands of the situation. Again, my motivation is understandable. I make money because people want to hear me perform or buy recordings of certain pieces. If there is another person doing the same, I have competition for those dollars. But in the end, this is an incredible disservice to the composer and the music. If I really want to promote new music, I shouldn’t feel like any piece/composer/style is my ‘territory.’ 6 Moreover, if I really want my interpretation and understanding of the piece to be its best, I can’t try to shut out other ideas. I’m working on it.

Ownership exclusivity

I suppose if there is any summary of these ideas, it is that performers and composers necessarily must possess the music; it must become part of their very being. However, there also needs to be an understanding that such ownership is not exclusive. Composers must have clear ideas about their music and articulate them clearly to the performers, but at some point the performers must come to own the piece themselves, and composers need to allow room for that. Performers must also be able to let go of their own interpretation to best serve the music. There is no such thing as having ‘learned’ a piece; a performer can only get to know it better. Ignoring alternative interpretations or, worse, actively discouraging them serves no one. Ownership of the music is vital to its creation, but exclusive ownership can kill it just as easily.


1 I have a number of friends who write electroacoustic music. I hope you enjoy this largely irrelevant essay.

2 There are obvious examples of composers attempting to remove themselves from the process of composing (e.g. Cage), though how successful such dissociative endeavors are remains debatable.

3 Again, I can think of composers who prefer a mechanical performance of their music, whether due to the great number of musical indications or a complete lack thereof. Should you fall into that camp, I hope you enjoy this largely irrelevant essay.

4 I have been told, however, that you’ll never win a competition doing that. Maybe have a competition version of the score that is marked to death and another that is for performers. I’m just brainstorming here.

5 For the record, I will not share scores if I think there is even a chance that the composer would prefer a purchase. You’d be surprised how often performers ask me to do just that.

6 The obvious exception is when a piece is commissioned by a performer or group. In that case, exclusivity is usually contractual, though limited.

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