Monday, October 09, 2006

The Author and The Performer

One of the most fundamental differences between classical and rock music is also one that seems to never be discussed. I’ve been fascinated with it for some time, as I believe it to be a very important point to be discussed in order to understand the nature of the genres. This topic has to do with the relationship between the composer and the performer(s).

Let’s define some terms to help us discuss the topic. First, I define a role called an “author”, which is a person who actually writes the music – on paper (or equivalent). In classical terms, this was the composer. In rock, we might call this the songwriter. Secondly, I define a role called a “performer”, which is a person, or group of persons, who perform the music as written by the author. Finally, you have the “listener”, which is the audience of the performers.

Author: writes music --> Performer: renders music --> Listener: hears music

Now, if we apply those terms to the different genres of music, we can see the variances which are so key to understanding the fundamental point. In classical music, the traditional composer was little more than the “author”. Yes, in those days more often than not the composer would also act as a “performer”, traveling from city to city and conducting the orchestra or being featured as the lead instrumentalist (in the case of a concerto or solo works), but equally often was the composer’s work distributed around the world and performed by countless other orchestras and soloists. The author (composer) left it incumbent upon the performer to interpret the text and musical direction in order to breathe life into the work – to create the music. In today’s times, it’s akin to a script (or screenplay) for a director and actor – the script gives the words and basic points such as scene direction, but it’s up to the director and actor to perform the work to their interpretations, such that different actors would end up with different performances (consider how many actors have performed “Hamlet” in how many ways). The author produced the script for the performer, but the two need not be the same person. Likewise, the composer produced the music for the performer, but the two need not be the same.

We see that distinction evident today in any meaningful discussion of classical music. Academics will scour over the written scores, trying to understand what the composer meant by the music, the complexities of the orchestrations, the specific stylings unique to that composer, etc. For that, there is only one definitive source – the written score itself, as authored by the original composer. There is little to no room for interpretation here as the notes are there, written on the paper.

Classical music listeners, however, will debate the great recordings – why Rostropovich’s version of a piece may be better than Ma’s, why Karajan’s interpretation excels over Mehta’s, etc. The fact is we have no definitive recording of a particular classical piece, and to speak of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in this manner is implicitly to speak about certain recordings of it. Variances in tempos, volumes, sound quality, and other such factories create such distinct experiences in understanding and appreciating the music. The performer becomes a very central figure in the existence of the music, and, as a result, the performance of classical music has demonstrated a continued livelihood throughout the centuries – new performers emerge every generation and breathe new life into the works.

In a few rare cases, we have recordings of the original composer performing his work, such as in the case of the recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos. Even in that case, most will listen to those recordings from a curiosity standpoint, but few will acknowledge them as being “definitive”, which is why a recording of Rachmaninoff featuring Martha Argerich, Leif Ove Andsnes, or others, gain such popularity – they all have nuances which are unique and their interpretations are considered just as valid as Rachmaninoff’s himself.

Let’s jet off to the other side of it, with rock. In rock music, the roles have collapsed, such that the author and performer become one. In most cases, there is no “score” (save for tablature and sheet music created after the fact), and the author writes the music as well as performs it, both in a static recording, and in the live setting. As listeners, we always have the one definitive recording – the original record, tape, or CD which the author produced. Almost never will there be a debate of one version of, as an example, Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” being better than another – there truly is only one version (in this case, that on “Led Zeppelin IV”).

However, there is an edge-case concept for which the performer can be different than the author, which we call “covers” or a “cover band”, but in most cases, these are not nearly as popular as the original, and, even if so, they are almost always recognized as a “cover” of the original (whereas a performance of Beethoven today is never referred to as such). The songs “All Along The Watchtower” and “I Shot The Sheriff” are two examples in which the “covered” version has as much popularity as the original, but, these are very rare, and, even in these cases, audiences are aware that the versions are covers, and are therefore compared back to the original, definitive, recording, which, as has been demonstrated, does not exist in classical music.

We also have a few instances of rock musicians acting solely as authors, such as the case of one writing a song for another. The artist Babyface is an example of a songwriter who is widely known as a composer (author), and only later in his career became known as a performer as well. However, even in this case, Babyface would be commissioned to write a piece for a very specific performer, and only for that performer.

Now, turning back to classical music, it can be contended that oftentimes a classical composer would write a piece with a very particular performer in mind, as in the case of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, originally written for Brahms’ violinist friend, Joseph Joachim. In such cases, though the author and performer were not the exact person, it could be claimed that there was indeed a definitive recording, that as having been performed by the intended performer. However, I argue that though a specific performer was in mind during the composition, classical authors were very well aware that many others would perform the piece, and thus they knew that the performance by the intended performer would not be the definitive version. Also, keep in mind that for most of the classical era there were no recording devices, so that even if someone were to be the definitive performer, none of his performances would have been definitive, since each would have been different night to night, and we have no recorded versions of these performances to consider definitive.

Why is this all so important? Well, it’s all about music understanding and appreciation. In classical music, it becomes vital to understand that there are many participants in the music’s lifecycle, and thus it is important to understand each one and their associated roles. Who is the composer, when did he write, and what role does he play in its creation? Which recordings exist, which are your favorites, and what are the nuances between them? As a result of this argument, it should be realized that simply owning a single recording of a classical piece is not enough, with so many interpretations out there. Start with a few of your favorite works and test them across multiple performers – undoubtedly you should find new and exciting dimensions to these works, as several interpretations are taken into account. The composers’ works are timeless because of the countless performers across generations.

In rock, a different sort of respect must be given to the artists and recordings. Realizing that there is only one recording of the work, what we hear is what we get. There are no other versions or interpretations that significantly factor in to its appreciation. It also means more to us to see an artist or band live – we’re actually seeing the author and performer (since they are the same) simultaneously. We’ll never see Beethoven live, only interpreters of his music, so while we have the chance, let’s go enjoy the rock artists who are playing all around us all the time. And even if we do not see them, their definitive recordings will live on forever, such that we will always have some audio reference to their greatness. I only wish we had the same for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.


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