The Uncontrolling Composer

At Bard’s Schoenberg festival several years ago, the guy who introduced Arnold Schoenberg to Charlie Chaplin (I disremember his name, sorry) told about the experience, which occurred after the composer moved to Hollywood. Schoenberg, he said, was disappointed to find Chaplin running around, fixing his cameras, doing the quotidian work of the studio, and cracking jokes, rather than strutting around with an overcoat over his shoulders and voicing his august theories on filmmaking while his subordinates did all the work. That story has always made me think well of Chaplin, and worse of Schoenberg.

Likewise, I am told that as composers go, I am rather easygoing; my recording session last week went particularly smoothly because I don’t insist on take after take after take trying to get every note the way I want it, and wearing out the performer’s inspiration in the process. It’s true. When I trust performers to understand my music and interpret imaginatively, as my pianist Sarah Cahill certainly does, I give them a lot of leeway. I don’t assume that I always know best, and I take advice. I find that I unconsciously observe a heirarchy of musical elements in this respect:

Pitches I am adamant about. My music must have the right pitches played in the right order, and that’s that.

My rhythms often suggest tempo relationships between 1:1 and 2:1, and it is essential that these come off as representing the notated values, though not necessarily in a precisely measured way. This means that the faster and more regular the tempo, the more precise the playing must be. However, I am fond of rubato, and Sarah has a wonderfully classical way of speeding up and slowing down within the phrase that I find enchanting. In slower passages, she has a freedom with duration that sounds like she’s feeling the rhythm, not counting it out, and I find that more musical than a strictly accurate approach. As long as the quarter-notes and dotted eighths are clearly distinguishable, I don’t interfere.

On dynamics I’m open to suggestion. Sarah insisted that she couldn’t feel a couple of my dynamic progressions, and so I let her have her own way. One I changed in the score, the others I’ll leave for the next performer to try. I am rather infamously sparse with expression markings, but for a good performer they always turn out to be enough.

Pedalling we sometimes disagreed about, and only once did I insist. I love the blur of sustained dissonant chords, Sarah finds it at times unmusical. Who knows?, maybe she’s right.

Tempo I leave to the performer unless they’re so on the wrong track it makes me cringe. Occasionally Sarah would consult a metronome, and I warned her over the microphone that I shoot performers who take my metronome markings seriously. Different tempos work for different performer personalities. Sarah played two of my pieces slower than I’d imagined them, and made them more sensuous in the process. She played another faster than I thought it could be played, and the result is glorious – the piece turned more beautiful than I’d imagined.

And why would I want to preclude the possibility of my pieces surpassing my expectations? What would be the point of writing acoustic music for performers if not to channel their personality into the music as well? If I insisted that there was only one way my music could sound, what would be the incentive for another performer to make a second recording? Yet we live in a weirdly schizophrenic music scene: on one hand, some composers take me to task for not being more open to improvisation; another set criticizes my music because I haven’t plastered it with dynamics and nailed down every possible detail. And yet for the in-between position, the limited improvisation of throwing down notes on a page and letting the performer use them as a vehicle for inspiration – which, after all, has a heavy weight of long tradition to speak for it – one hears little support these days. I always liked, and by “liked” I mean “despised,” Milton Babbitt’s comment, “Letting a performer decide what music should be played is like letting a typesetter decide what books should be published.” Composers either think your music is dead if you don’t let performers extemporize, or they think performers are mere machines to which you should transmit your intentions, which should be exhaustive.

And this second attitude, I think, goes back to a stereotype that the classical music world hasn’t seen for what it is. Underlying much of our classical-music rhetoric is an ideal that the composer should be a stubborn, uncompromising figure who knows everything. I don’t believe that this has as much to do with the nature of the artistic personality as it does with the fact that, just a few decades ago, all the great composers were central Europeans and mostly Germans. And, to generalize a little from my own experiences, Germans, whatever their many lovable qualities, tend to be stubborn, uncompromising fellows who know everything, or talk like they do. I think we’ve grafted the central European personality onto our figure of the artist, and, like Schoenberg, we’re disappointed when someone doesn’t measure up to that inflexible Beethovenian ideal. Americans don’t tend to be so supremely confident, they tend to exhibit more humility toward diverging points of view, and I think this is why American composers (and most British ones as well) are at such a disadvantage in the classical music world. Making a career as a composer seems to have a lot to do with projecting the kind of unflinching, I-know-what-I-want confidence we associate with Europeans. Had I really wanted to impress people with what a great composer I am, I should have stormed around last week shouting, “No, no, no, pianissimo, not piano, and the crescendo doesn’t begin until the third beat!” (An anomaly worth mentioning, however, is George Tsontakis, who’s a funny, egoless, absolutely unpompous guy, and who’s doing well in the awards arena lately.)

Carl Ruggles’s Sun-Treader is one of my favorite works, an absolute knock-out that I play for students every year. His Organum, too, fantastic piece. Yet Ruggles was an underconfident, easily-swayed person who asked John Kirkpatrick for composing advice and, receiving it, followed it. One could fill a book multiplying examples, but the point is that I believe there is no correlation at all between being a control freak and being a true artist. I’m glad Chaplin fixed his own cameras, and I’m glad I have the sense to let Sarah turn my music into something more beautiful than my imagination alone could have produced.


  1. says

    As someone who has lived in German-speaking countries for the past fifteen years (and who is married to a German woman), I can confidently assert that you are justified in considering Germans “stubborn, uncompromising fellows who know everything, or talk like they do” — but that experience means (perhaps unsurprisingly) that you mostly meet German intellectuals of a certain stripe, who are very sure of themselves, very imperious, and very intimidating. Many of them become professors. :-)

  2. says

    Was the “When Schoenberg Met Chaplin” story told by David Raksin? In L.A., David was our link with a musical history no one else still remembered directly and also between the film music and serious music worlds. He was a jovial guy who attended most new music concerts, always with a story (usually ending with a pun.) I worked for him briefly during which time I and his ex-wife had to break into his studio, setting off the alarm and angering his neighbors.

    He passed away in 2004. He told me that his papers and scores had been accepted by the Smithsonian. I hope they’re being put to good use there.
    KG replies: Yes, I believe that was the name. Thanks.

  3. says

    The Chaplin-Schoenberg connection must have been the late David Raksin, yes? A wonderful man. I once had lunch with him at Musso & Frank’s, and he startled me by saying that I was sitting in Charlie’s favorite seat. He told me the story of how Schoenberg once got angry when one of his students started criticizing Shostakovich. “That man is a composer born!” Schoenberg snapped.

  4. Emily Bezar says

    Don’t get me started about the time I performed some Webern songs in San Francisco and one of the musicians in the ensemble criticized me for putting “too much Emily and not enough Webern” into the vocal interpretation. What, was his ghost there in the Hall making nasty faces from the back row because I sang the music with too much warmth and conviction? The experience kind of made me run screaming back to my Prophet V.
    So you have nothing to apologize for Kyle. Any notational composer who doesn’t acknowledge the power of the performer’s spirit and intellect to help create a legacy for the music, is contributing to the death of the notated genres. I have learned the hard way that the only way to go from a Good to a Great recording is to trust the players, and to encourage them to forge a passionate relationship with the music by letting go of the micro-details in order to shape the larger emotional contour of the work. That is always the part that the listener responds to first. As a composer-performer who admits to some control-freak tendencies, if I find that I cannot compromise and MUST have it exactly the way I hear it in my head, I will have to find a way to play it myself, or make the computer do it for me. Otherwise any potential for that magic chemistry between writer and interpreter is gone and the performance/recording will reveal the disharmony and have no power to move the listener.
    KG replies: I would give a lot of money for a recording of Emily-ized Webern. It sounds fantastic.

  5. Michael Wittmann says

    Not meant terribly seriously: As an Austrian by birth, let me point out that Schoenberg’s German language does not make him a German, stubborn and all that. We Austrians are a mix of Slavic, Mediterranean, Hungarian, and southern German (a different breed from the Prussian) who happen to speak German.

    What’s the story about Prussian and Austrian armies marching against each other in the 7 years war? The spies reported back to their generals… The German spy said “The situation is serious, but not hopeless.” The Austrian spy reported back “the situation is hopeless, but not serious.”

    My point is that Schoenberg may well have been a serious asshole, but he was his own particular asshole, not one representative of any country, style, place, or time. Assholes are like that. We each have one, and its all our own.

    For a more refined look at the central European mindset, check out the recent Milan Kundera article on world literature, published in the last month or so in the New Yorker. It’s fascinating.

    Now, far more seriously, I am really looking forward to these recordings. Thank you for writing about them here.

  6. says

    Regarding your recent post, I too am a big fan of Ruggles
    though I haven’t heard that music in 20 years(university).
    It would be interesting to see what I was responding to.
    As far as the composer/ performer argument—there are two variables
    —the composer and the performer.
    If your performer was less engaged or unwittingly destroying your piece
    I don’t think the same’ give and take ‘would exist.
    My experience with performers is in general they underrehearse, wait to the last minute
    to learn the piece, are over-booked, care little about the contouring of the music, are burned out by gigging, dislike your music——-and they just want to get through the gig without getting lost. Pushing them however diplomatically can produced a firestorm of resentment (transference of guilt) about bad notation, tempos too fast, undoable leaps, unidiomatic writing for the instrument.
    But in their defence, often the composer(let’s take myself for instance) is not a performer, his/her only narrow experience with performing is through Pollini or Berlin Phil. recordings. There are awkward leaps, ridiculous tempi (got to love midi)and unidiomatic writing which he/she justifies as the evolution of geniuses, or a message from God, Often the piece goes on forever exhausting the most germanic of performers—-meanwhile the whole modernist point for the composer is to be more uncompromisingly Prussian than the previous generation. Notation is often garbled by software weighed down by unforeseen complexity by the pop programmers or composers’ lack of proofing—-and the constant rejection by performers and audience alike , eventually produce a kind of psychotic/ Götterdämmerung–like drive to annoy everyone further by continuing to up the ante, with more extreme leaps and faster tempi, and wearing jackboots to performances and recording sessions.
    I too am currently in the middle of a CD recording/release and so all the above tendencies are deeply masked in the passive fog of hangovers. But I’m often comforted by the vision of Schoenberg silhouetted in a late afternoon sunset, leaning against the tennis net, obsessively counting the strands in his racket (avoiding the number 13) ,his much recorded bitterness , his control-freak vision abandoned, dropped off in a Hollywood back lot by posterity. He is the perfect symbol of the modern, ridiculous, quixotic, yet misguided, artiste.
    From an anonymous friend.

  7. says

    Having just come from a rehearsal of a piece of mine, I think a composer who knows how to effectively coach performers can be a very beneficial partner in the performance process. The musicians are sitting or standing right by their instruments; it can help to have someone with a sensitive ear sitting or standing some distance away, someone who can say “in that tempo, the middle section gets blurry, so you might want to exaggerate the articulations a bit more.” That’s not the Master saying This Is How The Piece Should Be Played. It’s a musician giving helpful feedback on the effect a performer’s choices have on ears that aren’t directly connected to the instrument.

  8. Ryan Howard says

    Careful–Babbitt was talking about performers deciding what music should be played, not deciding how to interpret the music they do play. It’s true (and Phillip brought this up in the comments to your kleinmeister post) that many performers will choose to play new music based on whether it “feels satisfying” to perform and presents a basic emotional/interpretive task with which they’re familiar. Condescending as it may sound, Babbitt’s remark might contain a grain of truth. (I also think it’s why the most successful composers of recent decades who created “new perceptual paradigms”–e.g., Young, Reich and Glass–were those who actively developed their own performance practices along with their music.)
    KG replies: Possibly, but if so he could have used a less demeaning analogy, rather than compare a pianist to someone whose function is purely mechanical: like “letting your teenager decide what to order for dinner,” for instance. After all, a typesetter doesn’t derive more pleasure from setting one book than another, and it was the demeaning attitude I find repellent.