Hierarchies in New Music: Composers, Performers, and ‘Works’

Several years ago, I played a contemporary chamber work with two very different groups of players. The groups approached the music in quite distinct ways: one was intense, impassioned, driven, the other more relaxed, elegant, easily flowing (in both cases these are of course crude generalisations). I happened to mention what I had been playing to a few festival and concert directors I was meeting around that time, who immediately asked me ‘which did I prefer?’ If either of these groups had been performing this or another work with two different pianists, group members would doubtless have been asked the same question. I could not honestly say I had a clear preference for either: both brought out different possibilities from the notated score, both involved quite individual creative responses to that score (note that at this point I am avoiding saying ‘both brought out different aspects of the music’, because I believe ‘the music’, independently of performance, is a problematic concept). New music would be the poorer, in my opinion, without either approach, and probably many others as well.

But the questions about preferences seemed loaded in a different way: with a performance of new music (at least that which is by and large ‘fully notated’ and does not involve any high degree of performance indeterminacy or improvisation [1]), if two performers or groups of performers take different approaches, then one of these must be more ‘right’ and the other more ‘wrong’. Of course it is also possible, by these terms, that both could be quite ‘wrong’, and the ‘right’ performance remains elusive. This touches upon some fundamental assumptions concerning a lot of new music, which remain remarkably unquestioned by many of those involved in that field, whether as composers, performers, artistic directors, critics, or even in many cases musicologists writing on that area (despite the fact that other musicologists have unpacked many of these elsewhere).

These assumptions derive from certain strains of thought which came to fruition during the nineteenth-century, which broadly maintain that the ultimate source of authority lies with the composer, who creates a musical ‘work’; something which exists as an abstract ideal, independently of specific realisations in performance. In its strongest form, this conception says that the task of the performer(s) is not to add anything extraneous to the work, but somehow to illuminate aspects of this idealised conception to the best of their ability. There are various established schools of thought on how this might be done, involving different attitudes towards the role and status of the text. One view (which I would label ‘literalist’ [2]) maintains that the performer (or multiple performers) should try to execute the text as ‘exactly’ as possible, and that will provide most of what is necessary. Another (which I call ‘scholarly’) says that such execution must also be informed by intense investigation of the exact notational conventions employed and all other information pertaining to the composer’s intentions (gleaned from known verbal remarks or writings on the matter, or more general information about their performance preferences in general). Another (which I call ‘analytic/aesthetic’) would say that the performer must penetrate those aspects of the music which lie beneath the surface and might be accessed by analysis, deeper knowledge of the composer’s aesthetic, philosophical and other concerns, and so on. Yet another (which I call ‘mainstream’) holds that on top of the ‘exact’ approach, the task of the performer is to make the work sound ‘musical’ or ‘like a real piece of music’; a quality usually presented in a vague and nebulous fashion, but which upon interrogation, is said to consist of making ‘musical’ aspects of phrasing, rhythm, voicing, continuity of line, and other such things. How exactly this is to be done is rarely specified in any more detailed fashion [3].

Each of these positions concur to varying degrees with the concept which came to fruition in music and theatre in the mid- to late-19th century (though its origins were earlier) of Werktreue, literally ‘faithfulness to the work’. This was especially associated with performers such as Joseph Joachim or Clara Schumann [4]. The pianist Alfred Brendel has suggested [5] that the term Texttreue might be more appropriate for what I term ‘literalist’, and perhaps also ‘scholarly’ approaches, but this is primarily a question of where and how the ‘work’ is to be found (as in a letter from Liszt to Richard Pohl in the 1850s insisting upon the primacy of the ‘spirit’ rather than ‘letter’ of the text [6]). Neither concept really brings into question the nature or even existence of such a ‘work’, let alone the performer’s relationship to it. What all such positions more or less accept is a subservient role for the performer in the face of both ‘work’ and compositional intent, and mostly that the ‘work’ exists as an abstract ideal. This ‘work-concept’ has been extensively analysed and critiqued by a succession of musicologists [7], but to the best of my knowledge very little of this debate has filtered through to those regularly involved with the production of new music. The ‘mainstream’ approach perhaps allows for a little creative input on the part of the performer, usually in the form of decoration, but mostly this consists of the appropriation the text in terms of various mainstream stylistic conventions, such as might commonly be applied to standard repertoire.

I find all of these positions to be limited and limiting, and believe in particular that they are predicated not only on unmediated acceptance of the work-concept, but also a rather narrow view of notation. As I argued in an article published four years ago [8], the role of the performer can be conceived differently by an alternative model of notation. Instead of a common model by which notation prescribes a singular result, to which ‘interpretation’ is essentially a supplement, notation instead delineates a field of possible practices through the creation of boundaries. The score sets limits, so that some possibilities are clearly excluded, and thus channels the performer’s creative input in certain ways, thus circumscribing a range of creative possibilities, rather than a ‘work’ which is ‘interpreted’.  Other information can be brought to bear upon that text (stylistic conventions, other conceptual knowledge, etc), which can nuance the range of performance possibilities. Instead of having to navigate between the false dichotomy of complete subservience by the performer on one hand, and an attitude of ‘anything goes’ on the other, this model allows that a wide range of different performance possibilities might all lay equal claims to legitimacy. At the same time, not just any performance is equally legitimate, especially not one which explicitly oversteps the boundaries* of the text to any palpable degree (this should not be taken to delegitimise adaptations, transcriptions or other modifications, just that they should be seen in a different category).  Instead of sacrosanct ‘works’, we have scores and a range of potential performances made possible by those scores.

New music events remain heavily dominated by a culture of world or regional premieres and celebrations of particular composers and their works. Performers of new music, in order to make a living, must endlessly master new scores, frequently in extremely short periods of time and often in order to perform them once or at most just a few times, before moving onto the next batch of works. This is not in itself so new; prior to the mid-nineteenth century and in some cases later a great many performers of all types had little time for rehearsal or absorption of repertoire, and frequently played very large amounts of music (one only needs to look at the concert programmes of Liszt, Anton Rubinstein or Hans von Bülow to see this, or consider the Leipzig musicians who would perform new Bach cantatas every week). By around 1870 (as traced in William Weber’s excellent book The Great Transformation of Musical Taste [9]) concert repertoire had become predominantly historical rather than contemporary. This consolidated the work-concept and created different expectations, often quite reverential in nature, so that it would seem bizarre for, say, a string quartet to learn a late Beethoven quartet in a week, having never seen the score before that week, then play the work in concert just once or twice.

Performers of new music today must deal with two types of historically-inherited circumstances. On one hand they have to learn complex new scores to a professional standard in a short period, whilst respecting a culture still dominated by the figure of the ‘great composer’ (at least where the composer in question is well-established, arguably less so for younger or less-hyped ones). The performers must then treat their music with the degree of reverence this calls for, and their performances will be judged to succeed or fail depending upon how much they are thought to penetrate the ‘essence’ of the ‘work’ and also to honour the composer’s intentions. Performers are then drawn into a rather vicious spiral of competition in this respect, each trying to demonstrate (to composers, festival directors, critics and others) how they outdo each other in terms of selflessness and submission in order to be the one soloist, chamber group or ensemble who comes closest to the true ideal. In the process they avoid taking personal responsibility for their approach, displacing judgment away from its own individual merits.

I believe there is a real need to look much more sceptically at this culture and the deification of composers and works in new music, and become more accepting of the performer as a creative animal, to move away from an unhappy world in which performers’ creative energies are spent more on new approaches to image and marketing than on the musical performances they produce. There have been some valiant attempts to do this, for example at the 2010 Donaueschinger Musiktage, where three different string quartets were all employed and each performed the same quartet of James Dillon [10]. However, assumptions of linear competitiveness (so that different interpretations continue to be viewed hierarchically) mitigate against such efforts. Only if new music culture involved many more performers and many more different performances of the same scores would there likely be some wider consciousness of the available possibilities. This would require either a drastic reduction of the number of scores performed (not a desirable outcome, as it would deeply limit opportunities for less well-established composers) or a considerably greater number of concerts and events, which would in turn require a much greater amount of public funding. The case for the latter has yet to be made in terms which might convince a wider public (and is practically unthinkable in musical cultures like the USA where public funding is minimal), but one should try. In the meantime, a compromise may be possible, with a reduced focus upon premieres, and with performers treated by festivals and concert series as of equal importance to composers and their scores. This would alter the balance of power in new music, and some of the hierarchies between composer and performer, or for that matter between performers, and begin to enable an enriched and broadened new music culture.  


[1] A different situation obviously applies with, for example, the graphic scores of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Sylvano Bussotti or Cornelius Cardew, or the text works of Dieter Schnebel, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Christian Wolff, which should be considered apart from the considerations here, though I believe my alternative model of notation can encompass these.

[2] All these terms are imperfect approximations for attitudes which can be more nuanced  than in the archetypal form I present them here.

[3] This latter position can be found in many of the essays and interviews in two collections on contemporary performance, Marilyn Nonken (ed), Performers on Performing, in Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 21 Part 1 (2002), and Barrie Webb (ed), Contemporary Performance, in Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 28 Part 2 (2007).

[4] See Angelika App, ‘Die „Werktreue“ bei Clara Schumann’, in Peter Ackermann and Herbert Schneider (eds), Clara Schumann: Komponistin, Interpretin, Unternehmerin, Ikone (Hildesheim, Zürch & New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1999),  pp. 9-18. On Joachim’s aesthetics of performance, the most comprehensive guide is Beatrix Borchard, Stimme und Geige. Amalie und Joseph Joachim (Vienna, Cologne & Weimar: Böhlau, 2005); but see also Karen Leistra-Jones, ‘Staging Authenticity: Joachim, Brahms and the Politics of Werktreue Performance’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 66, No. 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 397-436.

[5] Alfred Brendel, Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (London: Robson Books, 1976), p. 26.

[6] Liszt to Richard Pohl, November 5, 1853, in La Mara (ed), Letters of Franz Liszt. Volume 1: From Paris to Rome: Years of Travel as Virtuoso, translated Constance Bache (London: H. Greyel & Co, 1894), pp. 175-176. This dichotomy is taken up further by Richard Taruskin, in essays in his Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) pp. 75-76, 99-100.

[7] Especially Lydia Goehr in her important 1992 book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), and a succession of subsequent writings informed by this – see for example Harry White, ‘’If It’s Baroque, Don’t Fix It’: Reflections on Lydia Goehr’s ‘Work-Concept’ and the Historical Integrity of Musical Composition’, in Acta Musicologica, Vol. 69, Fasc. 1 (Jan. – Jun. 1997), pp. 94-104, Jim Samson, ‘The Practice of Early-Nineteenth-Century Pianism’, in Michael Talbot (ed), The Musical Work: Reality or Invention?(Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), pp. 110-127, Reinhard Strohm, ‘Looking Back at Ourselves: The Problem with the Musical Work Concept’, in Talbot, The Musical Work, pp. 128-152, Stephen Davies, Musical Works & Performances: A Philosophical Exploration (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), pp. 91-98, and Michael Spitzer, Metaphor and Musical Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 127-136. Julian Hellaby, Reading Musical Interpretation: Case Studies in Solo Piano Performance (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 4-11 deals with some of the same types of attitudes to performance which I outline here, whilst some of the most important work on the relationship between analysis and performance, in a series of essays by Nicholas Cook, draws upon the critique of the work-concept: see for example Nicholas Cook, ‘Analysing Performance and Performing Analysis’, in Cook and Mark Everist (eds), Rethinking Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 239-261, and the longer and partially overlapping essay ‘Words about Music or Analysis versus Performance’, in Theory into Practice: Composition, Performance and the Listening Experience , edited Peter Dejans (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999), pp. 9-52.

[8] Ian Pace, ‘Notation, Time and the Performer’s Relationship to the Score in Contemporary Music’, in Unfolding Time: Studies in Temporality in Twentieth-Century Music, edited Darla Crispin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 151-192.

[9] William Weber, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[10] For one interesting reflection on this event, which touches upon some of the same questions as I do above, see Max Nyffeler, ‘Richtig und falsch oder anders: Der „Arditti-Standard“ und der Publikumsgeschmack’, at http://www.beckmesser.de/themen/streichquartette.html. Nyffeler does not however really question the concepts of ‘work’ or ‘interpretation’.

[* Addendum: The philosopher Michael Morris drew my attention to how much the concept of 'violation' of a text seemed extremely prescriptive, so I have modified it to the idea of overstepping boundaries. The bracketing out of transcriptions, adaptations, etc, from this discussion is simply for the sake of preserving a degree of brevity, and should not be read to imply that these are somehow lesser forms of musical endeavour - just that they constitute a modification of a score rather than simply a response to it/dialogue with it. ]

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8 Comments on “Hierarchies in New Music: Composers, Performers, and ‘Works’”

  1. Edd Caine says:

    Very interesting blog, specifically for the explicit realisation of what you think of as the subjugation of the performer. It’s not something I consider much as a composer. My view has for a long time been that that the “work” I produce is pretty much a piece of paper with dots on it. I’m very lucky in that I am alive and can influence the performance (read interpretation) of the work by collaborating with performers but also very much aware that when I am not present the performers are free (and welcome) to perform it however they please. If there’s one thing I am aware of when composing a score, it’s trying to reduce the possibilities of interpretation down to a general “class” of ideas so that, wild cards aside (and there have been a couple of those), the general ideas in the piece move in the same direction, even if the playing style and other details differ.

    I think it’s fair to say that not much has changed though, and if you think of composers as being deified, don’t forget about the deified performers out there. Could J.S.Bach have predicted Glenn Gould’s performance of the Goldberg Variations, and would he have cared? I can’t tell you what it is about Brendal’s Beethoven sonatas that really catches me out, but I can tell you that it’s more about his touch and less about Beethoven’s intentions as a composer.

    It makes me think of the RMA conference in Leeds at which you and Michael Finnissy gave a concert and a keynote talk. I’m sorry I had to rush after that one or I would have chatted a bit about this. I’m continually coming across composers and performers that try to tell me that this or that are not collaborations. It seems that in order for it to be a collaborative work, it must be 50% performer and 50% composer. Your talk was interesting because essentially Michael doesn’t collaborate on those terms – he sends you the score, you perform it. My thought was – “why”? Michael’s an incredible pianist and more than capable of performing his own works. To me, there is always a collaboration going on, and the score is a detailed set of instructions from one collaborator who was not able to make it to the meeting. I think it’s natural to think that because the flow of information is one way (these are my instructions I must carry them out) that the composer is hierarchically above the performer, but it’s worth noting that when it comes to producing the thing that the audience hears, the performer holds all of the cards. If a performer wants to play the theme from the dam-busters in the middle of Ligeti’s Etude’s then where is Ligeti to tell them not to?

    As a composer, it is a compliment when a performer plays according to the score that I have written. I often get furtive looks and questions along the line of “is this what you want” and the answer is invariably “yes” because I’ve deliberately left my score open to interpretation of that nature. A performer was talking to me once about the use of technology to turn pages of the score and I casually threw in “so why don’t you just memorise it?” and the performer replied “but then I wouldn’t be sure of doing what the composer wants, I’d be using my own interpretation from my memory”. I genuinely see no problem with this!

    • Ian Pace says:

      The very question ‘is this what you want?’ already implies that the performer assumes there is some type of ‘this’, rather than thinking of the score as making possible a wide range of possibilities, not all of them necessarily foreseen by the composer. Your answer ‘Yes’ to that question is strictly correct, but could it not be mis-interpreted to imply that this is the singular desired result, without their realising that there might be any number of other ways to which you would also say ‘yes’? As I mention in the comment below, some of these assumptions are as much to do with assumptions and ideologies on the part of performers (revelling in submission?) as composers.

      (Re the collaboration with Finnissy: it has been somewhat more complex than described above, especially during the composition of The History of Photography in Sound where he regularly sent sections to me for any thoughts, and was interested in wider ideas which might affect the composition, from myself and others)

      • Edd Caine says:

        In the same light, I’m being simple with my own interaction – generally this is after some discussion about the piece that I get the question. It’s actually quite rare that I get to hear any one piece performed by more than one person but interestingly the most improvisatory of my pieces has been performed by four separate people on different occasions and in vastly different contexts (pub, intimate venue, large venue). It’s a solo soprano piece and extremely dependant on the performer and their own quirks of performance. The first time it was performed the sop performed twitches and head bobs to add drama. The second performer sang it very straight. There’s such a difference between single people – looks, tone, timbre, vibrato, “performance stance” or natural stance, manner of expressing themselves, and all of these things made a huge difference to how the piece played out and sounded, but the thing that I was after, essentially a very uncomfortable experience that describes a major epileptic fit, was achieved by all of the performers without need for much further explanation (after having collaborated with the first and revised the score to give a clearer context). My “yes” can’t be any broader than just a general discussion about the piece can be. If the performer misunderstands the notation and doesn’t achieve what I’m after, then I’ve done my job badly.

        In simplistic terms, if a composer writes “an alberti bass with a progression I-Ib-IV-VI” then you have both a very specific instruction and one open to wildly different interpretations but the performer is presumably doing a bad job of interpretation if it doesn’t represent an alberti bass with those progressions.

        Having said that – I can’t be alone in hating the endless classic FM re-writes of Debussy. Surely this is an example of clear misinterpretation of a score. One cannot really say that though!

        I think that the hierarchical structure you perceive is largely owing to how composers are represented in the media. It’s difficult to come across as an “influential performer”, probably (but not exclusively) more difficult than being an “influential composer”. I think on a social level it doesn’t exist so much. We both need each other (I’ve been tempted to make the argument that if you don’t like the composer->performer hierarchy, why not just improvise? why not just play some Pace?) and generally both performer and composer are respectful of the other’s abilities. In re Xenia’s post below, it’s notable that she mentions pay – I’m pretty sure performers tend to get paid much more often than composers do (saving very famous ones). That kind of thing just smacks of petty scrabbling…

        It’s interesting though that History of Photography in Sound was more back-and-forthy. It is still essentially one-way though, unless you wrote any of his score for him? I do think a good point out of all of this would be to acknowledge the help of the performers where help was given in that way. I would then have to also acknowledge all the friends that I bounce ideas off as well, and not all of them are musical…

        I have more thoughts but can’t finish this now – must go (already an essay).

  2. Thanks so much Ian for speaking up about these issues, and the “cult” of the composer and especially the premiere, so ingrained in our culture. This definitely needs to change if new musical works are to achieve some sort of longevity. Moreover, while many composers and festival directors respect their performers, we are often overlooked (unpaid even in some circumstances, our names left out of programmes entirely, as often happens in performances in academic conference settings, not congratulated after concerts while standing next to the composer who gets adoring praise from festival director, and many more comical situations). Composers forget at times that the performer is the face of their music… It is always heart-warming to be acknowledged in the score, and this is so simple to do. I must say though we are still luckier than some, if you want to see real disrespect and lack of creative acknowledgement in a musical hierarchy, look at the lack of regard received by composer-technicians providing technical support to some “star” composers (and performers) in certain settings…

  3. Chris Lawry says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post. Looking at things from a composer’s perspective, I’m amazed that the performer, in any situation, could be thought of as hierarchically below the composer. Music is a collaboration, and Xenia is quite right, performers are ‘the face’ of the music. Without either side, it could be argued, the music would cease to exist. It might take one mind to write something, but it takes another equally important one to realise that vision.

    A partnership working well in collaborative composition is a great thing. I wonder whether the majority of composers would actually argue against the performers role, or whether it’s the general feeling of the musical establishment or concert goers that set the hierarchy and deify the composer.

    Thanks also to Ian for the reference to ‘Notation, Time and the Performer’s Relationship to the Score in Contemporary Music’, I’ll be following it up!

    • Ian Pace says:

      Hi Chris – that’s a very important point, I think, that the subservient role of the performer is at least as much a product of the musical establishment and concert goers as that of composers. Obviously composers have a variety of opinions on these matters, and there are indeed some (probably) who see the performer’s role in terms mainly of recognising their grand design; but those responsible for the wider reception of new music (including many musicians not themselves involved with contemporary music) do tend to hold to this hierarchical view, I believe.

      I often despair of that common historical model of notation in the form of a straightforward linear teleology, by which the performer’s role becomes more and more circumscribed over time, culminating in a situation whereby performers of contemporary music supposedly have almost no freedom of action. I prefer to think of such performers channeling their creative energies in different ways as a result of different types of scores.

      The particular hierarchical view I am describing is not so often presented explicitly, but seems implicit both in attitudes towards performance and also the very nature of musical events and their heavy concentration upon composer features and premieres. But performers bear a fair amount of responsibility for the situation as well through competitive proprietorial claims upon ‘works’ in such a way as sidelines the possibilities of pluralism.

  4. Bill Connor says:

    we write because we can, we play because we can, we listen and absorb/are transported for a while because we can and because there are those who wish to write and those who wish to perform…a communal circle that’s been turning since Ug smacked one stone against another, surprised him/herself, then did it again…deliberately…one act is noise…the consequent one defining the first; music…..
    the performance of music is a communal act determined by the will and the formative understanding and skill of all parties at what ever level. some directed by graphics on a page others by verbal explanation and consequent mutual exploration but all defined by wish and understanding at what ever level.
    ….then there is commerce; the buying and selling and fiscal remuneration of all our efforts.

  5. A question I ask myself as a composer has to do with the potential inability of conventional notation to trigger the interpretational approach you describe—which essentially questions the Saussurean synchronic relations of signifiers/signifieds. It seems though, in my experience, that performers tend to ask the question that Edd Caine suggested (“is this what you want?”) in a context where the piece is notated conventionally; well, with the occasional “contemporary music” add-ons that are standard today. I’ve seen many performers struggling in order to disregard the historical background—as well as the lack of analytical rigor on behalf of their former teachers!—that accompanies conventional notation and suddenly pretend that a score is a text that has no direct correlation to its author (and, as you describe, her or his “ideal”; as if the music existed in a metaphysical realm that can potentially be accessed).

    In my experience, performers tend to redefine their thought-process in an interpretive context in which the notation is not conventional (and I’m not referring to Wolff, Cardew, Hidalgo, and others that could be grouped into that particular tradition). The lack of strong historical implications and standardized performative practices of some contemporary non-conventionally notated scores push the performer (if we assume that he or she wishes to rigorously interpret the work) into a domain that has barely been explored.


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