Composers, Performers, and Consent

If we want our collaborations to be satisfying for everyone involved, we need to come up with ways of working together that explicitly address two related questions:  what is each of us willing to do, and what does each of us want to do?

Written By

Alex Temple

Jessica Aszodi

Singer Jessica Aszodi
Photo by Yonatan Aljadeff

A few months ago, I was talking with composer Bethany Younge after a concert.  The conversation turned to our shared frustration with the idea, famously expressed by Stravinsky in reference to his Octet, that a score is an objective musical text, something to be executed rather than interpreted.  But we soon discovered that we were frustrated for different reasons.  I have trouble with the Stravinskian model because I see music as a kind of social interaction, and it’s important to me that a collaboration be a meeting of minds.  Bethany, on the other hand, objects to the structural power imbalance that it creates between composers and performers.

A few weeks later, I had a similar conversation with singer Jessica Aszodi. During one recording session, she told me, a composer pushed her to repeat a particular sound four times, despite her warning that she could only safely do it once.  As a result, she lost her voice.  Here the danger of the Stravinskian model is very concrete:  the composer’s insistence that she follow the score as written physically harmed her, and temporarily took away her primary source of income.  And there’s another power dynamic at work here, too.  New music vocalists, as Jess pointed out, are predominantly women—and the composers who have told her things like “I don’t care how it’s done, I just want you to do it” have all been men.  She also told me that she often receives scores from male composers that are written for a “generic soprano” rather than for her particular voice and personality—often based on archetypal female roles, with markings like “angelic.”

These conversations inspired me to revisit an article by another singer, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett.  She shares Jess’s and Bethany’s concerns about a new music culture that restricts performers’ choices, but her focus is on pieces that set up impossible tasks and ask the singer to fail in front of the audience.  The goal, she says wryly, seems to be “a silent, shaking performer in the corner of the room.”  Echoing Jess’s comments about female archetypes, she also criticizes many composers’ preference for breathy, delicate, informal, straight-tone singing, which she describes as “infantilized” and as “polic[ing] the voice.”

If you’re a composer who cares about both collaborative relationships and social justice, it’s easy to treat conversations like these as prescriptions about how to write.  I imagine that’s especially true for men who are trying to be good feminist allies, but even composers of other genders can’t ignore these issues—and in fact, Amanda clarified in a follow-up conversation that women have put her in compromising positions, too.  Contemporary activist writing sometimes makes it sound as though doing the right thing is as simple as following a bulleted list.  A site like Everyday Feminism is full of articles with titles like “3 Ways White Cis Gay Men Can Do Better for the LGBTQIA+ Movement.”  So why not “5 Ways Composers Can Avoid Limiting Performers’ Agency”?

But of course it’s not that simple.  Ethics is always slippery and messy and complicated, and there’s no more consensus among musician than there is among, say, queer people.  As Edward Said wrote in Orientalism, “it is a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.”  Case in point:  only a week after I first read Amanda’s article, I ran across an interview with new music soprano Ariadne Greif.  She has no problem playing the role of vocalist in distress:  when she talks about ripping duct tape off her body in Georg Friedrich Haas’s Atthis, or running out of breath and winding up “ill and tearing up and shaking” in the final movement of Georges Apherghis’s Récitations, she emphasizes the power and intensity of the experience, both for her and for the audience.  “I’m in the Marina Abramović school,” she says.

And what about that delicate, straight-tone vocal style?  Amanda may see it as a “sexy baby voice,” but there are other ways of framing it, and not all female singers find it restrictive or inexpressive.  I’ve written pieces in which I sing that way myself, partially as a way of exploring the aesthetics of emotional repression, and partially, under the influence of Robert Ashley, as a way of getting singing closer to speech.  I also recently wrote a song cycle for Julia Holter, who’s been performing in that style for years.  During one rehearsal she jokingly started singing my music in a traditional operatic fashion—loud and resonant and with a rich vibrato—and it sounded absurd.  That kind of delivery doesn’t suit either her quietly intense stage presence or my oblique, pop-oriented piece.

The Stravinskian model has its fans, too.  A few years ago I wrote a piece for a reading session with JACK Quartet, and when I emailed their cellist, Kevin McFarland, to ask what he thought of some ideas I was tossing around, he responded that the group didn’t want me to feel the need to compromise, because they were “in the business of helping composers accomplish their visions.”  Personally, I don’t think that writing for a performer’s particular taste is a compromise.  But if the group wants to faithfully execute people’s ideas without interfering, can we really say that composers who take them up on it are unjustly exerting power over them?

Bethany Younge in performance

Bethany Younge in performance

The missing piece of the puzzle, I think, is consent.  The problem isn’t the idea of performers as objective executors;  it’s composers putting them in that role without asking.  The problem isn’t taking risks with vocal technique;  it’s composers who insist on going forward even when the singer has said no.  The problem isn’t asking musicians to experience distress on stage or to sing in a breathy straight-tone style;  it’s forgetting that your vision is being realized by an actual human being with desires and preferences and opinions.

When I brought the language of consent into the conversation, it turned out that everyone agreed with me, and many of them had already been thinking in those terms.  Despite Bethany’s fear that performers might feel pressured to take on the Stravinskian model, she acknowledged that some people might genuinely prefer to have a clearly defined task in front of them, and that they have a right to make that choice.  Jess made it clear that she’s in favor of pushing the limits of vocal technique, as long as the composer acknowledges the sovereignty of the singer’s body.  And Amanda explained that she has no objection to those who actually want to sing in a quiet, informal style or perform failure on stage.  When composers ask her to sing delicately, it grates partially because that’s not who she is—especially when they refer to it as a “natural” sound, since for her, what feels natural is “being big and loud and crazy.”  She did reiterate that she feels manipulated and controlled by pieces that make her fail, but with the caveat:  “that’s my sensibility as a performer.”

And yet recognizing the diversity of performers’ attitudes doesn’t eliminate the power dynamic inherent in the very act of writing music for someone.  There can be complicating factors—for example, if the performer is much more famous than the composer—but you can’t get around the fact that when you write for someone, you’re taking control of their body for a period of time.  If we want our collaborations to be satisfying for everyone involved, we need to come up with ways of working together that explicitly address two related questions:  what is each of us willing to do, and what does each of us want to do?

Kevin, who I first met when he was playing cello in a group called Ensemble de Sade, told me that he frames the issue using the conceptual categories of BDSM—the composer as dominant and the performer as submissive.  “I kind of love the idea of being willfully compromised for art,” he said.  Particularly when he plays the kind of highly complex, meticulously notated music that JACK Quartet specializes in, he feels like he’s not so much interpreting the piece as being “controlled remotely,” or treated like a puppet.  He’s consented to play that role, of course.  But even when you’re writing for musicians who prefer more give-and-take in their collaborations, the ethics of kink culture still provide a good model for talking about consent in a situation where one person is necessarily taking some degree of control.  If we made a habit of negotiating our collaborations in advance—discussing what all parties hope to get out of the experience, making note of safety risks, and establishing a set of ground rules—there wouldn’t be so many frustrated performers out there.

So what does this look like in practice?  Over the last few years I’ve been gradually shifting away from writing pieces in order to explore my own obsessions—bad taste, polystylism, gender, memory, sound logos, the American landscape—and toward designing experiences for the particular people I’m working with.  That’s never been more true than when I wrote The Man Who Hated Everything for wild Up this past summer.  Early on I called their conductor, Christopher Rountree, and asked him a long string of questions about the group’s artistic personality and values.  How would he describe their sound in general?  What fuels their desire to work with living composers?  Do they feel a strong sense of L.A. identity?  Chris also gave me detailed information about every musician on the concert—which instruments they particularly like playing, who’s an improviser and who isn’t, who plays in rock bands, who’s more focused on New Complexity repertoire, whose playing is more lyrical and whose is more brutalist.

By the end of the conversation I had an idea of what I was going to write:  a tribute to Frank Zappa.  It fit with everything Chris had told me about the group:  their diverse backgrounds, their “janky and noisy” sound, their love of music that’s hard to play (“we kind of like punishing people”), their habit of programming noise music and pop covers side by side.  It also gave me an opportunity to include improvisatory passages with open-ended textual instructions—a deliberate ceding of control that challenged me to let go and trust other people’s musical judgment.  Later I decided to have the players sing in the final section, and I had questions for Chris about that too.  Who has a good falsetto?  Who would be up for yelling?  Who would enjoy doing a cheesy lounge singer voice?  He checked in with everyone in the group before answering.

The result was one of the most satisfying collaborative experiences I’ve had.  Knowing that I was writing for specific people made all those hours sitting at my desk feel less lonely, and the musicians were enthusiastic about playing something tailored so precisely to their interests.  I was still taking control of their bodies for a while, but our pre-negotiation meant that I was doing so in ways that they enjoyed.  And my decision to give up my composerly power in certain passages meant that the piece really was a product of their sensibilities as well as mine.

It’s important to note that emphasizing consent doesn’t always lead to wonderful collaborations.  In fact, sometimes it means that collaborations don’t happen at all.  I was recently approached by a singer who was interested in working with me, but when I listened to her recordings, I noticed that she had the kind of formal “classical” sound that I have a hard time writing for.  So I asked if she was up for doing something more speech-like, making it clear that I didn’t want to impose anything on her.  And it turned out that she wasn’t!  It made me wonder if composers sometimes write things without checking in first because they don’t want to risk being turned down.  But I also think that not working together is much better, in the long run, than working together in a way that makes your collaborator feel frustrated, trapped, or manipulated.  Unless, of course, that’s exactly what they’re looking for.

Alex Temple

A sound can evoke a time, a place, a cultural moment, or a way of looking at the world. Alex Temple writes music that distorts and combines iconic sounds to create new meanings, often in service of surreal, cryptic, or fantastical stories. In addition to performing her own works for voice and electronics at venues such as Roulette and Constellation Chicago, she has also collaborated with performers and ensembles such as Mellissa Hughes, Julia Holter, Cadillac Moon Ensemble, wild Up, Spektral Quartet, and the American Composers Orchestra. Temple earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 2005 and her master’s from the University of Michigan in 2007; she’s currently working on a doctorate at Northwestern University and writing a podcast-opera about TV production company closing logos and the end of the world.