Tag: composer-performer relations

When Bad Performances Happen

A few days ago as I was quickly scanning the Twitterverse for news and information, I paused on these tweets from Northern California-based composer Garrett Shatzer:

After quickly weighing in with my $0.02…

…this appeared from Brooklyn-based composer Daniel Felsenfeld…..

…who elaborated on his perspective in a later email….

The whole idea that we ought to be grateful and penitent even in the presence of a poor performance—and by this I do not mean a player who is not exactly flawless but rather an unprepared and uncaring performance—is something with which we all must deal. For one, it is a little—LITTLE—bit true because we can probably trace some professional good things to some less-than-stellar performances, so it behooves us to suffer a little. On the other hand, how often do we get misrepresented?

…and here we are.

Bad performances happen.

This is, quite simply, a reality of being a composer. Performances are not always what we would like them to be, or what we expect them to be. This can range from, “That wasn’t quite what I was hoping for,” to “I think I’ll just crawl under this seat right now and stay there. Forever.” To emphasize Danny’s point above, we are not talking about the performance that contains a few blemishes, but rather to the train wreck situation that unfortunately, most of us have experienced at one time or another. Although I think that it is possible to minimize the potential for these situations—for instance, by being selective about what musicians play what music—I don’t believe that they can be completely avoided. We have all been caught by surprise by a performance we thought was going to go well and then didn’t.

Will a poor performance damage a composer’s career/reputation/future projects?

There is no clear answer to this question, but in my experience, a bad performance is more likely to impact the musician(s) than the composer. An experienced listener (and sometimes even those with less experience) can often distinguish between a problem with the performance vs. an issue with the music itself, even in the case of a premiere. Perhaps a long run of consistently poor performances of a piece would have a real effect, but one or two? That’s just life.

If a performance is especially problematic, one thing a composer can do to minimize any potential negative impact is to simply be silent. No one who wasn’t in attendance needs to know a thing about it beyond the fact that it happened. It can safely be included on a list of performances, on a resume or CV, on a website, etc. If it was documented in audio or video, you are under no obligation (unless there was a very specific and unusual contract agreement regarding the performance) to share that with the world. And chances are if the performance was that terrible, the performer or ensemble isn’t going to put it out there either.
As far as handling the situation in the moment—assuming the composer is present, that is—I am highly pro-diplomacy. Take a bow, shake hands, greet the audience, enjoy a glass of wine at the reception. If you feel comfortable telling the musicians you were unhappy with how things played out, don’t do it then and there. Save that for later, maybe even several days after the performance. And keep in mind that you may not have a clear picture of the situation—something could have happened to affect the performance, such as a personal emergency, a musician feeling ill, a practice space snafu. Take time to suss that out and discuss with the musicians what happened before airing your grievances. It’s also possible that something was amiss within the music, or the parts, some aspect of the gear or tech setup, who knows. Discuss what might resolve the issue in future performances—the fix could be as simple as allowing for more rehearsal time. We are all musicians in this together, and not too many musicians are deliberately out to trash a performance. If you are convinced that you have been mistreated, then don’t work with those people again.

As a silver lining, the composer should remember that s/he will still receive a royalty payment!

How can we be sure our music is receiving the care and attention it deserves?

In my experience, the most effective way for composers to ensure that their music will be well represented is to build a strong community of musicians who are excited about playing their compositions. It can take time, and definitely a bit of trial and error (and probably some less-than-awesome performances), but we owe it to ourselves and to our music to make the effort. Follow the good performances, show the musicians that you appreciate their hard work, and stick with those people.
There are so many things to talk about around this issue—please have at it in the comments section!

(Note: While the sharing of personal experiences is welcome, musician-bashing will not be tolerated. Keep it civil, y’all.)

Schizophrenic Composer/Performer

As an undergraduate studying saxophone and composition, I avoided writing for my own instrument. I felt that I already knew the textural nuances, sonic transformations, and difficulties that each individual technique creates. Instead, I wanted to push myself to write for instruments that were unfamiliar to me. After gaining more experience as a composer, I felt more comfortable writing for myself as a saxophonist. Later, in graduate school, I was commissioned to write a duo for tenor sax and percussion for the 2011 SoundSCAPE New Music Festival, which I would also premier myself. This led me to discover some of the communication issues that often come between a composer and a performer: there are discrepancies between the composer’s intent and the performer’s limitations, issues regarding notational clarity, and difficulties with idiomatic and non-idiomatic writing for the instrument. Further complicating this matter was the fact that I would be both the composer and the performer, causing debate within myself as I assumed both roles and struggled with the above-mentioned dilemmas.

It was difficult to focus my enthusiasm while composing, amidst the myriad of technical possibilities, knowing I would premiere the piece. Utilizing performance techniques I was familiar with, such as slap tongue, multiphonics, and microtones, I began to weave the piece into a unique textural sound world. Because I enjoy these techniques, I pushed the limitations of both my ability and that of other saxophonists. While composing, I failed to think as a performer, creating intricate lines with a high degree of difficulty. My amusement subsided with the increasing complexity as I strung quarter-tone 32nd notes into polyrhythms between the sax and percussion. It became obvious that the piece (which I titled Solitary Confinement) would put me in a position to have to decipher my own thoughts on a level that I had never encountered before.

The process of learning to play any piece that you compose yourself is different from learning to play a piece by another composer. As a point of comparison, let us examine the process of learning a piece with many extended techniques from the point of view of a performer. Recently, I learned Gérard Grisey’s Anubis et Nout for bass saxophone (originally for contrabass clarinet). The rhythmic timbral shifts, alternate fingerings, multiphonics, and slap tongue are precisely woven together. It is evident that Grisey had highly-detailed knowledge concerning extended techniques, and his compositional style requires accuracy. With this in mind, the immediate approach to learning Anubis et Nout is one of precision in every aspect. Every rhythm and timbral shift must be exact for the full effect of the piece to come through.

Yet sometimes a composer’s artistic intent is misunderstood by the performer. Although it may be healthy for a performer to have questions about the performance practices used in the piece, it is important for the composer to notate with clarity that which he feels strongly about. This often depends on the composer’s understanding of the instrument.

This miscommunication may go the other way as well if the performer is not familiar with techniques the composer uses. As a saxophonist learning Anubis et Nout, any question I had about specific techniques, or about the attainability of any sounds or textures, were usually easy to solve. If I had difficulty with a technique, I knew that it was an issue with me as a performer, not one with the composer. However, what if the barrier between performer and composer were nonexistent; if the composer and performer were the same person? Would this create new issues in the process of learning a piece of music? How would this affect issues of communication between composer and performer?

The first time I sat down to learn Solitary Confinement as a performer, I experienced much of the same frustration as with Anubis et Nout. However, the questions of various techniques’ attainability were not as easily answered: as the composer, I found myself wondering how to change the piece to make it more feasible instead of asking myself how to attain the techniques needed. Where was the line between performer and composer? It becomes difficult to determine when a revision is desired by the composer for aesthetic reasons, or when the performer wants an edit due to technical demands.

After the first dismal practice session, I spent the next three days looking at the score—no instrument—penciling in fingerings for quarter-tones, and feeling more doomed with every additional mark. I realized I would not be able to learn what I wrote, and so I moved on to revising. Was this piece so difficult that saxophonists would not be able to learn it accurately? Or was I, as the performer, not capable of achieving the composer’s vision? Regardless, I knew I would have to simplify some of the techniques to make the piece attainable; but what was the proper balance between the composer’s and performer’s needs?

Baldwin Score Sample 1

Score Example #1: quarter-tones found early in the piece. © 2012 Kevin Baldwin

I took steps to simplify awkward passages, struggling with the dichotomy of composer and performer roles. As a performer, I quickly realized the non-repetitive quarter-tone runs were impractical. It would be unreasonable for me as the composer to expect performers to learn 3 to 4 minutes of quarter-tone runs that lack a consistent pattern. Though using the 12-tone chromatic system would have made the piece more manageable, I, as the composer, previously strove to create a less-readily comprehensible language for the listener. To compromise, I used one of the earlier phrases of quarter-tone runs as a basis for subsequent phrases, with a degree of variance. This satisfied both the composer and performer; the quarter-tones remained in the piece for aesthetic reasons, while simplifying the material for the performer.

Baldwin Score Sample 2

Score Example #2: original phrase as stated, and varied as the piece progresses,
as seen in Variation I below. © 2012 Kevin Baldwin

Baldwin Score Sample 2a

Score Example #2a: Variation 1. © 2012 Kevin Baldwin

Initially, Variation I had very few of the same pitches as the original phrase. The amount of work required to execute these passages far exceeded the artistic benefit. My struggles stemmed from identifying the source of my desire to edit the music. Despite the hardship of separating musical personae, I approached the edits with both the performer’s and composer’s dilemmas clearly in mind, thus simplifying the revision process. Still holding true to the original aesthetics of form, timbre, and phrasing, I reached a compromise between composer and performer, diminishing the inner turmoil. But once I made these initial revisions, problems arose again at the start of ensemble rehearsals.

Baldwin Score Sample 3

Score Example #3 © 2012 Kevin Baldwin

Polyrhythms between the sax and percussion created large ensemble problems that were difficult to remedy. The issue of keeping both parts together overshadowed the difficulty of playing the correct notes. Suddenly, the internal fight between performer and composer reawakened. As a performer, I finally became proficient at the quarter-tone runs, but the complexity of the interplay between saxophone and percussion consumed our attention. I refused to compromise my aesthetics in order to simplify the rhythmic intricacies seen in Score Example III because the overall chaotic textures and raucous edge was a priority. Therefore, the passage remained intact.

Problems within a piece do not only arise from the performer’s side. As a composer, I wondered if the notation and instructions in Solitary Confinement were clear enough for others to perform the piece with the same integrity and general interpretation as I intended. I knew what I wanted the piece to sound like, though I was unsure that the notation fully reflected my intention. Despite several other musicians’ reviews and approval of the score, the concern remained with me until another duo sought to perform the piece. Their interpretation fulfilled my intentions, making me feel that I had succeeded in communicating my ideas on paper well enough that they would be understood by others.

Through this experience, I set out to push my technical abilities, but in doing so I uncovered an internal struggle between composing and performing my own works. The advantages and disadvantages of the process have surfaced in other pieces written after Solitary Confinement as well. As a composer, I must adhere to my convictions and philosophies despite the level of difficulty. However, there may be times that the difficulty does not warrant the outcome, or else the techniques may not be completely possible for the performer. When the performer and composer is one in the same, these issues become more apparent, and can become more difficult to decipher the thoughts created by the two roles.

[Ed. Note: A full recording of Solitary Confinement is available at www.kbaldwinmusic.com.]


Saxophonist and composer Kevin Baldwin strives to push the boundaries of music through extended performance techniques and unique sounds. He has performed his works and those of others in the U.S., Canada, China, Italy, France. Currently, Kevin resides in New York City, and holds a MM in Contemporary Performance from the Manhattan School of Music.

The Recording

Back in February, I wrote a post about my experiences with the Grammy Award-winning producer Judith Sherman as she worked with the Gaudete Brass Quintet on their latest CD. Having never worked with a producer before, the experience of working with her during the session was nothing less than a gift. That gift, however, pales in comparison with the gift that I received in my inbox on Tuesday when the quintet sent me the final audio files for the CD for one last listening before they get pressed. I’ve had a few of my works recorded in the past and love hearing them, but this one felt different when I heard it…and it got me thinking about what having a good recording of a work means to a composer today.

There were several reasons why this piece felt different. My work on the recording, Brass, had been a commission by the Gaudete; I wrote it in December 2011, it was premiered at Symphony Space in NYC in January of 2012, and it was recorded in February of 2012—less than two months between the time the work was finished until the time that it received its definitive recording, so it is by far the most recent of my works that has been recorded and the best demonstration of what I’m doing now.

The experience of working with the Gaudete as collaborators was amazing; their openness to new things, their patience with a composer’s requests, and their willingness to push the composer to make the piece even more than what it might have been originally still stands out in my mind as a model of how it can and should be done.

Finally, the finished product. Normally one listens intently to hear any mistakes or slight rough edges to polish, but when I heard the recording for the first time I realized I wasn’t focused on the performance because I was hearing the work—my work—exquisitely played and masterfully recorded, exactly as I had heard it in my head back in December. That transcendence of what I had created from a live performative interpretation to a sterling and permanent expression hit me hard. You’ll have to remember, because of my background in education, jazz, and film music, I’m still getting used to the idea that I’m now a professional composer. In many ways, this recording feels like the final leg in my own journey.

Today, one cannot overstate how important it is for composers to have quality recordings of their works. Most applications for grants, residencies, artist colonies, and other valuable opportunities require recordings before they’ll even make a consideration. As many composers today are self-published, they don’t have the advantage of someone else “talking them up”—they have to prove their place in the world on their own and recordings are the most effective way to do that. To that end, with social media becoming the primary conduit through which musicians interact, the ability to distribute a sample of one’s music through a SoundCloud player or other similar method in an e-mail or on Facebook is quickly becoming standard operating procedure for many composers.

For today’s composer, having a recording is more than just an archive of a performance or a “calling card”—it is an important and necessary tool in the creation and sustainability of a career, as well as the external expression of who a composer is.

Impossible, You Say?

A few years ago I composed a piece of music that I now reluctantly believe is unplayable as I originally conceived it. I know there’s a whole tradition of music that seems impossible in one generation but eventually becomes common practice—the late Beethoven quartets and Varèse’s Ionisation immediately come to mind; good company to be lumped with for sure, but a rather arrogant thought which is not my intention. I also know there’s a whole compositional style involving the notation of music that a player couldn’t possibly play, in which the struggled-through attempt at a realization is actually the desired performance; but that’s not where I’ve ever come from aesthetically.


While I love cool patterns like the one above, I worry that my fixating on them sometimes neglects the human element necessary to make something that is hopefully even more meaningful.

Some people might chalk up the creation of an unplayable piece to an over-reliance on computer notation and playback. Our current technologies can undoubtedly provide composers with a false sense of security. But that’s not exactly what happened in this particular instance. I had a crazy idea that quickly morphed into a full conceptualization without any computer assistance before I actually sat down to write out the specific notes. (Without getting too deep into the details here, the idea involves an elaborate, but hopefully audible, permutation of a microtonal scale involving metric modulations.) In fact, when the time came to start digitally engraving the work, in order to get Sibelius to notate and create a MIDI mock-up of what I had imagined, I had to hack some of its protocols. It turns out that my initial idea resulted in music that was significantly challenging to play even on a computer. At that point perhaps I should have known better than to plunge full on into something that would inevitably be even harder for a human performer to do, especially since most of the time I am not terribly interested in composing music for machines and difficulty for difficulty’s sake is never my goal.

The problem has been gnawing at me ever since. Was the conception inherently flawed? Was it ultimately unmusical? Could there be a way to change some of the piece’s more unfeasible aspects in a way that would still faithfully convey the original idea? From the beginning, specific pitch frequencies didn’t matter to me, only maintaining the precision of the relationships between them. So the piece could be transposed to any key and be perfectly fine. Timbre and dynamics were also not an overarching concern. I never had a specific instrumental sonority in mind and it could be as loud or as soft as a player desired as long as it was consistent throughout. However, the specific tempos I chose and the relationships between them seemed essential, so I was much less willing to be flexible about them. The piece, as I had originally written it, begins with a series of arpeggios at a somewhat normal-sounding speed, but through a series of gradual tempo shifts, they are transformed into frenetic cascades of notes that are just not doable by a human being. However, if it is slowed down to the point where that final section can be played securely, the opening sounds interminable.

Over the weekend I communicated with a musician who has taken on the Herculean challenge of trying to make this piece into music somehow. I changed the register of some pitches here and there, and came up with a series of tempos that begins slightly slower than I’d like and ends slightly faster than the performer is currently comfortable with. Both ends probably need to be finessed a little bit more to prevent the performance from being either a drag or a train wreck, although hopefully this will happen in a way that won’t erode the perceptibility of the rhythmic design of the piece. I’m finally convinced it might be doable and that an interpretation can be realized that is faithful to the spirit of the original idea.

Over the years I have heard too many stories about composers who assume performers’ claims of something being unplayable are a byproduct of laziness or lack of technique, and performers who assume composers’ less seemingly practical desires are the result of being out of touch with reality. Compromise is ultimately at the core of music’s viability—whether in composition or performance or the act of listening. I’d be curious to hear about others’ experiences in this realm, as composers, interpreters, or listeners.