Creative Performer, Listening Composer — Who are we?

I started playing the clarinet at age seven in a local band and unlike most of the other students developed this nascent interest into professional life. Throughout my playing career I have nurtured and maintained a fascination for artistic creativity. However during this time I have often felt like a small cog in a big wheel where professional requirements and the prevailing performance aesthetic encouraged an attitude of functionality.

Over the course of many years I have learned to listen more carefully to my own creative needs and I have sought to engage with performance as a creative process. I now feel more aesthetically aligned to composers than to many performers.

This article is from a paper at the Conference on Performance Studies in Aveiro, Portugal 2009
The Listening Composer/Searching Together
Comments by:
Dr. Jane O’Leary, Conservatory of Music & Drama at Dublin Institute of Technology (JOL)
Dr. Paul Roe, Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin (PR)

JOL: For me, being a composer means listening intently-to the world around us and to our inner selves. To silent spaces. Creating music is like uncovering a sculpture within a block of marble-as Michelangelo observed, the sculpture is waiting to be discovered. Similarly, a piece of music is there to be received by those with open ears. The poet Brendan Kennelly speaks of art as ‘a gift that took me unawares, And I accepted it.’
The listening never stops-once the piece is conceived, it is shared by the performer. Sounds are shaped and refined as the piece evolves and passes to another more public listener-the audience. As the composer, I am still listening intently at that stage and the piece I have written is only beginning its life. As I listen, sounds are stored away and begin to influence a new piece… resonances linger.
Personal Journeys

JOL: When I began writing music in the early ‘70’s, composers and performers were very separate entities. The process of making music was clearly defined: the composer gave exact instructions, the performer followed these instructions. The result was rewarding for neither side. The idea of a ‘perfect’ performance (i.e. one that meets the composer’s instructions exactly) is false, as is the idea that a piece is ‘finished’ when the composer puts it down in notation. Experience has led me to believe that a piece only begins life with its first performance and that it is very much the result of combined input from both composer (who must be searching and listening) and performer (who must be creative, involved and adventurous).

Today, working as both performer (in the ensemble Concorde) and composer, I look at compositions from both sides. I strive to leave aspects of my music open for a performer’s input. In a recent piece for saxophone quartet, I sent drafts and awaited responses. In the end, the performers told me they enjoyed the fact that they had ‘an input’ to the piece and felt more involved because elements of its performance were meant to be interpreted freely.

I have written pieces for instruments I know almost nothing about-guitar, viola d’amore. In each case, a highly skilled performer invited me to write the piece, gave me a demonstration of the instrument and showed examples of successful pieces by other composers. I then wrote the music taking into consideration first and foremost the capabilities and sounds of the instruments and the particular players.

In writing a piacere, a piece for Paul on bass clarinet, a somewhat different approach took place. To discover the secrets of the bass clarinet we had a number of exploratory sessions. We talked, we made sounds, we searched together. Out of these explorations music was created. The notation, however, is relatively free and can yield several possible results. There is no single ‘correct’ version of my piece; it lives through each performance.

PR: I began playing music professionally in my national Army band at age 15. While in the band I spent many hours developing my own musicianship and was rewarded for my efforts some years later by gaining a full-time orchestral position in the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. These years of training were spent primarily on honing technical skills and refining instrumental facility in order to appropriately transmit the classical canon with transparency. The personal voice was subsumed in a quest for refinement.

Throughout my years in the orchestra I played and performed music almost seven days a week. During this time I often felt frustrated by the lack of enjoyment I got from playing. A prevailing atmosphere of production on demand negated attempts at personal fulfilment. Early in my orchestral career I got involved in contemporary music when I joined the Concorde Ensemble and in this context saw the potential for a more creative exploration through living and emerging music.

In 2000 I left the orchestra and became more actively involved in a variety of areas including contemporary performance, community music, education and academic research. With this broader perspective I was afforded the opportunity to explore and develop my own creative impulses. During this time I have worked extensively with many Irish composers and this work has profoundly affected the way I think about music. It has encouraged me to speak my own mind musically.

I deeply appreciate the work I have done with composers such as Jane as it has shown me the importance of nurturing one’s own creative growth through a deeper engagement with the process of making music. ‘Classical’ training prioritises production and efficiency over personal creativity. Ultimately this encourages a toughness that is often at odds with a musician’s inherent sensitivity. I now recognise more than ever the importance of making music as creative discourse where the aspiration is towards self-discovery and expression rather than merely being a means to an end.

Collaboration — always a good thing?

PR: Collaboration is a multi-faceted phenomenon that is not well understood, as it is used to describe so many kinds of activities and relationships. Collaboration has had a significant impact on me as a performer. It has felt like working from the inside, gaining insights into the creative processes of other musicians which in turn encouraged me to reflect on my own creative practice. I try to listen and perform music not as a functional instrumentalist but more as a creator of sound focussing on shapes, colours, lines and emotional intensity.

I have worked closely with Jane over many years as a member of Concorde and also on two solo pieces she has written for me. The process of working together and thinking about how to integrate individual skills produced an understanding not possible through individual effort. Collaboration has a way of increasing imaginative discourse, where motivation is improved and creative risks are taken.

The experience of collaborating with composers has brought about both conceptual and attitudinal changes in my approach to performance. I have enhanced my expressivity through engagements th at have stimulated my aural imagination and encouraged me to think and play with a creative spontaneity.

JOL: Working in a collaborative way with performing musicians is a richly rewarding experience. The performer offers us insights into the unique capabilities of the instrument; the composer contributes an overview and a direction as well as a detailed path. It is not about improvisation, it is about carefully combined skills.

For the composer, the resulting piece comes closer to realising our imagined sounds and utilises a broad spectrum of colour. As the music now incorporates both personalities, it contains a personal (and perhaps therefore more interesting) expression.

In my music today I am reaching beyond the elements of pitch, pitch area and rhythmic relationships to create a sound world which is perhaps closer to electronic sound production yet is still created by human breath and movement. I am trying to escape the limitations of the sound world of the past. A broader spectrum of sound can only be achieved through an intimate understanding of how sound is produced and who better than a performer to guide us towards those actual sounds?

However, a piece created in this way may become inextricably linked to a single performer, thus limiting its extended life. Familiarity between performer and composer can also result in a somewhat vague notation, understood by the initial collaborators but unclear to potential performers.

Transmission of musical ideas — eyes or ears?

JOL: There is no standard notation for many of the subtle variants of colour which one would seek to replicate. I often simply create my own way of describing what I am looking for, either with words or symbols. In consultation with a performer, this becomes an understood code but can be a stumbling block for new performers. For accurate transmission a recorded performance provides a necessary addition to written text. It is for this reason I wanted to include a piacere on a CD of my music released in 2007. While not to be considered a definitive performance (the piece grows and matures through each and every performance-remaing ‘alive’), the recording does at least provide guidance as to the intended meaning of non-traditional notational methods.

In any case, the transfer of musical ideas is dependent on a common understanding – whether the language of transferral is visual or aural.

PR: Notation as a method of communication in contemporary music is flawed-the medium does little to evoke important aspects of music such as gesture and timbre. Collaboration introduces a profoundly visceral element in communication that transcends the mono-dimensional nature of a notated score. It provides for a wider range of communication modes between composer and performer including improvisation, singing, conducting, playing, chatting and various other mediating influences that occur when musicians meet face to face.

While composers can be concerned with getting the notation (relatively) accurate, so that new works can have a life beyond an individual performer, the potential exists for dissemination through aural and oral means (much like in jazz), through recordings, word of mouth (musician to musician) and indeed further collaborations between the composer and other musicians.

Implications for future performances

PR: It is my belief that contemporary music thinking and practice would benefit from a reorientation of traditional historical practice. Priority must be given to making music rather than the creation of scores. Composers need to develop new ways of using notation and to embrace theatricality and physicality in relation to new work produced. Performers need to support these changes by adopting more flexible and creative approaches to their work and treat the notated scores as an invitation to imaginative investigation.

Ideally we need to develop more composer-minded performers and performanceminded composers.

JOL: When does the composer’s contribution end? In the instance of a piacere, my part ended with a written score and at least one recorded version of the piece. I defined the shape of the piece, its sound and direction. As a piece is absorbed by the performer, it continues to develop and as it moves into the minds of listeners it takes on another life. This is truly the beauty of music-that it remains alive through performance. There is no final or perfect version. It is not ‘owned’ by anyone but is there to be received by those who are open to it.

What makes a successful collaboration?

JOL: Collaboration is most successful when the participants

  • Speak the same language
  • Trust and respect each other
  • Share a curiosity about life and music
  • Are open to new ideas

PR: Collaborative practice requires:

  • Intrinsic personal skills of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence
  • Willingness to confront personal prejudices
  • An open and flexible atmosphere
  • Willingness to acknowledge personal fallibility and to remain somewhat equivocal

Collaborations work most effectively when there is no sense of one or other partner setting the creative agenda. The more flexible the interaction, the greater the enjoyment and creativity. While this can paint a picture of a ‘cosy consensus’ mentality, it is not the case; with collaboration there is always inherent tension where identity is challenged and assumptions confronted.

Collaborating effectively takes personal courage and trust where often the destination is unclear. Naturally starting from a point of friendship is a good beginning, as was and is the case when working with Jane.

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