Composer as Performer

One of the things a lot of composers I’ve talked to wrestle with is the problem of performance. We’ve specialized and aren’t performers. We write virtuosic works for virtuosic performers of instruments we can’t play virtuosically ourselves.

This puts us at a huge disadvantage. Arts in the US aren’t exactly remunerative. Most performers expect to get paid if they are performing someone else’s work instead of their own–and typically they want some respectful, professional rate, not a share of the minuscule door. Which I understand; I feel like I deserve to get paid for my work as well. But in general, it means that compositions don’t get performed unless a performer is really dedicated to the work.

The model of composer and performers as separate entities doesn’t mesh with the gigging band model that many venues use. I think that’s why there’s a great deal of stress placed on improvisation in the northeast. The inevitable conclusion is that those of us who want to compose have to stop writing virtuosic music. We have to write music that we can perform ourselves.

I’ve experimented a fair amount with improvisation over the last few years. It’s not me. I think I produce more diverse music if I compose it in advance. Plus, the whole reason I got into composition in the first place is that I can’t play the piano for very long without losing the use of my hands. I need them for more important things like writing, typing, preparing food, dressing myself, brushing my teeth, and so on. That puts the piano, the one instrument I can play virtuosically, squarely off limits for me.

When experimenting with improvisation, I focused on voice and percussion. I may yet write myself a piece for voice, but it’s a very uncomfortable space for me. I have allergies that really mess with my range. One day I can comfortably sing from e below middle c to g above high c. The next day I can sing from the c or d above middle c to the f just above that, and if I dare go any lower I’ll lose my voice. That’s nearly as risky as piano.

So I’ve been focusing on several different compositional niches: personal pieces, game pieces (for instruments I can try to play like percussion & toy piano), and music for open-ended instrumentation (combat music & some works-in-progress).

Personal pieces and some game pieces can double as installations. They can also give the audience something to do between pieces I might perform myself. This would let music flow constantly instead of being broken up. It would also give me breaks between pieces, which I think is important as a disabled performer.

I’m trying to build up a set of stuff I can perform myself with some combination of percussion and toy piano. These are things I can play without hurting myself. And maybe I can’t be virtuosic, but at least I can write things that will be performed. I think I have a real chance of playing toy piano virtuosically. Some of that piano training has to transfer. The compositional goal I want to set for myself is to find a way to write percussion music that I can play as an amateur but will still offer a challenge to virtuosic percussionists.

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