Scott Slapin


The Composer's (Holy?) Intentions
January 31, 2020


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Scott was Artist-in-Residence for the AVS in January/February of 2020.

People seem to like an agreed-upon authority to magnify their already pre-existing opinions.

Whether cherry-picking from the Constitution or the bible, it's not merely their own little opinion now--- it's either the Founding Fathers' or God's! (And who are you to argue with me... or I mean, them?!)

Now that I've upset just about everyone, I'll get to where I was going with this. I think people do this with composers, too. People want black-and-white answers from composers. The One Right Way To Play This Passage That No One Else Can Argue With. If the composer is dead, they want an Urtext with the answers, or at least some history book on what they generally did at the time to treat as the Final Word.

There certainly have been a few composers who have enjoyed the role of emperor--- with their musicians to serve as obedient servants--- but most I know of have been far more laid back than that, because I don't think that's generally how music really works. (And while history is a legitimate subject, so is music, and they're different.)

In other words, some amount of collaboration is required between composer and performer. The starting point is the actual notes and markings on the page. I think it is reasonable to be a bit of a purist about them, at least to some extent. The questions arise when it involves things that are not on the page.

To start with, there are actual intentions, and then there just are expectations that some people mistakenly refer to as intentions. It wasn't Bach's intention that viola players play his music with Baroque bows. It was just an expectation, because that's what was around. There's no evidence that when Bach played older music (say, by Palestrina), that he tried to use older equipment and techniques. He probably didn't, as HIP is pretty much a 20th (and now 21st) Century thing.

But even with actual intentions, maybe the composer sees multiple ways a phrase s/he wrote can work and is happy to leave it up to the performer. Many composers are primarily piano players and will defer to the non-pianist about the smaller details. A detailed performance is always important, but there are often more than one set of details that can work.

And what about circumstances the composer couldn't possibly have foreseen? Someone famous died right before the concert, unique acoustics of the hall or of your viola.... these will bring about different interpretations, and this is not only fine, it's better. It will adapt the music to the moment and circumstances more appropriately. Even with an accurate printed metronome marking, under certain circumstances, it might make sense to not follow it.

Many composers are aware that the viola player knows more about viola playing than they do, and so why should they be dictating bowings? Even with the actual musical material, composers often change quite a few details upon hearing the piece for the first time. And when they hear the piece again ten years later, they might change their mind again about a few things. There's nothing sacred about one's first idea.

I'm happy to hear about people playing my pieces, and I'm always interested when they play things in a way that I hadn't 'intended'. Sometimes I see it as a viable alternative. Other times I like it better--- and I steal it for my own performances! Sometimes I just don't like it--- but I still recognize that it's their show; if they like it that way, it's likely that some in their audience will, too. (Or else maybe they just had a bad night!)

I think there's no substitution for being able to analyze music and bring out its architecture. There are often many ways to do that, some with more personalization, some with more of an emphasis on history etc. This involves collaboration, not subservience. For people with a need for "the one right way", this can all drive them (and sometimes the rest of us) a little nuts.

In Cremonus' Name, Scott

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