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.