II. Performer Roles in Contemporary Music Collaboration
What is a performer for? When composers work with performers, in what capacities do they expect or hope to engage them? At what point should a composer give credit to the performer for their creative contributions to a piece? At what point should a performer demand that credit? How does the relationship to the composer and the process of collaboration create the artistic identity and practice of the performer? To repeat the original formulation: what is a performer for? The answers to these questions are fundamental to understanding various approaches to composer and performer collaboration and in considering how collaboration shapes not only musical works, but artistic practices.
The interpreter-adviser-deviser model (see fig. 1) offers an often overlooked perspective in contemporary music1 collaborative frameworks, which is the impact of collaboration on the performer’s artistic identity and practice. In various collaborative situations the performer can assume the role of acting as an interpreter and executor of a score on behalf of the composer, as an adviser to the composer, and/or as an equal and co-creating deviser.2 These roles can be more than mere tasks taken up in a single generative process, they can, through repetition, represent the artistic practice of the performer. This is especially the case for musicians specializing in contemporary music, where a large portion of a musician's activities is often commissioning and realizing totally new pieces. (Roche, 2011) It is the composer’s and the performer’s conceptualization of what a performer is ‘for’ in this process that largely defines the potential of a performer’s artistic practice. Like any model, the interpreter-adviser-deviser model exists on a spectrum containing nuance and variability. It is conceived as a framework for considering the ways composer-performer collaborations can influence and contribute to the construction of a performer’s artistic practice. Each role in the interpreter-adviser-deviser model is necessary depending on the creative situation, however it is the third of these, devising, that presents the most radical rethinking of the role, purpose, and potential of the performer in that it often considers the performer to be a co-creating author of a new piece.
Recent scholarly work has questioned the storied notion of the composer as an autonomous genius who single-handedly creates new musical pieces. This research has yielded diverse models for analyzing and considering the nature of composer-performer collaborations. Several of these models consider the issue of decision making to be the dividing line between various collaborative approaches. In these cases, the process of decision making is usually a reflection of hierarchy and a division of labor between composer and performer (Hayden & Windsor, 2007; Taylor, 2016). Acknowledging that the composer very rarely works completely alone, Elliott Gyger (Gyger, 2014) proposes a model that considers the influence of the performer on the evolution of a new piece. Though Gyger consciously stops short of devised collaboration within his model, he concludes with the notion that the influence of the performer seems to be contingent on when the performer and composer meet to work on the piece in relation to where the composer ‘is’ in the process of composing. The interpreter-adviser-deviser model exists in relation to the scholarly research above, through it draws its difference by attempting to focus on the role of the performer in the collaborative process in terms of the performer’s agency and artistic identity. The interpreter-adviser-deviser model illustrates that collaboration is itself a practice, and therefore it is not only through collaboration that a piece is made, but it is also through collaboration that artistic practices are made.
The roles performers assume may be exhibited in specific collaborations and contexts, or they may represent a performer's approach to their collaborative and artistic practice more generally. In other words, the role a performer plays in a collaborative process can be understood as simply that, a role one plays while in a particular group dynamic, or they can be understood as encapsulating a repeated collaborative approach out of which the performer's practice and artistic identity is built and understood. Identity and subjectivity are complex concepts that span far beyond the frames or ambitions of this text. However, for the purposes of grounding the suggestion that collaborative roles could reflect an entire artistic practice it is useful to consider the notion that one aspect contributing to the formation of both identity and subjectivity is the relation between a person and another. In the case of the performer, the relationship towards composer and the score is a crucial element for understanding performer subjectivity. The performer who sees the composer as an authority, by which the performer learns or grows, is a subjectivity altogether separate from the performer who identifies as equal to the composer when regarding the question of what and how a new musical piece is made.
Performer subjectivity has been described by Gorton & Östesjö (Gorton & Östesjö, 2016) as a web of interactions between the performer and the instrument, the score, performance practice, and the composer. However, they argue that the primary relation for the performer developing what they term ‘voice’ is in relation to the instrument. The instrument, of course, does play a crucial role in the construction of performer subjectivity, however it could be argued that the emphasis of the instrument on a performer’s ‘voice’ primarily reflects that performer’s artistic and collaborative practice. ‘Voice’, identity, and/or subjectivity of the performer can equally be formed in relation to composer-collaborators as to an instrument. This is especially possible for musicians whose instrument is but one element within an expanded artistic practice, which could also include improvisation, composition, research, or performance more generally. Gorton & Östesjö use a second term, ‘discursive voice’, to describe the collective ‘voice’ of the composer and performer that emerges out of the process of collaboration. Though this formulation is certainly compelling and useful for conceptualizing collaboration, the subjectivity referred to in the argument above that a performer’s ‘voice’ can develop primarily through the relation to a composer is not meant as a collective voice but rather as an individual one specific to the performer. In fact, in some cases it could be argued that it is a direct consequence of the relation to the composer that determines the secondary emphasis of the instrument as grounds for constructing performer subjectivity.
The performer as interpreter (see fig. 1)
The method of using a performer to interpret and execute a finished musical score is perhaps the most stereotypical dynamic between composer and performer. The model of the interpreting performer most confirms the Romantic view of the composer as solitary genius. In this case, the performer acts as a “medium” or “messenger” that transmits the composer's musical ideas on behalf of that composer. During the compositional process the composer may work completely alone without ever consulting the performer, or there may arise occasional questions of notation and instrument specific considerations. Through the act of composition, the composer designs the parameters for musical engagement and expression on behalf of the performer and most often communicates this to the performer through a written score. The performer then translates the score into sound through the act of a performed interpretation. Throughout the process of realizing the musical work, the performer's expertise and artistic identity lies with their instrument and the interpretation of a finished score. Though interpretation and the act of performance are critical to understanding any musical work (Cook, 2013), the authorship of the musical material always remains with the composer. This is the case even in the example of the open score, wherein the composer leaves openings for the performer to “finish” the piece (Eco, 1989), for example by asking the performer to develop the sonic materials, as in the case of graphic scores, or by asking them to create the form of the piece, as in the case of open modular compositions (Saunders, 2008).
The performer as adviser3 (see fig. 1)
The advisory role of the performer is one that encapsulates a range of collaborative methods and strategies. The ‘performer as advisor’ is a role that performers and musicologists alike will feel familiar with, though the specific historical impacts performers have had on pieces and composers is more often told in the margins of musical history; relegated to footnotes, anecdotes, and mythology. With Johannes Brahms’ relation to clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld as perhaps one of the most well known examples, composers throughout history and up to the present have had specific performers by their sides acting as musical confidants and consultants (e.g. Kanga, 2014; Roche 2011). Though these performers rarely receive the attention or credit they may deserve, through the lens of these collaborative practices the image of the composer as solitary genius begins to fade from view.
Gorton & Östesjö (Gorton & Östesjö, 2016) describe what is here formulated as the performer advising the composer as “two complementary perspectives”: “pre-compositional joint invention and post-compositional negotiations in the realisation of a score and its notation”. In this formulation the dividing line between approaches is the relation of when the composer and performer meet to collaborate and the appearance of a notated score. Advisory collaborations that initiate before a score is created are often based on workshopping compositional sketches, experimentation, and improvisation. In this ‘pre-compositional’ workshop setting, the performer may be used as a resource to test and illuminate musical ideas. The workshops can also be used to develop the underlying concept or materials of a new piece. In rare cases the performer may be present during the entire compositional process. Meetings that occur between the composer and performer after the composition has been made, or "post-compositional negotations", are normally used as opportunities to revise a score and to reconsider notation. In some cases, the performer may suggest edits to the piece such as taking away, reordering, or adding material.
As adviser, the performer may experience having a greater impact on the outcome of the piece as well as the perception that the new piece is "custom made". When improvisation is used as a strategy in the generative process or in the resulting work, the performer may experience a greater sense of freedom or a sense that the piece gives space to the performer's individual artistry beyond the realm of interpretation. Though a score is often used to communicate elements of the piece and to preserve the composition for future performance, during the advisory process, the score can begin to lose its emphasis as a means for communication between the performer and the composer. This process gives the performer insight into the composer's intentions, information which may or may not enter into the written score. This insight, in addition to the sense that a piece is "custom made", may afford the performer a greater sense of artistic ownership and interpretational freedom.
In advisory collaboration, the performer and the composer enter into a dialogue where both parties have agency to contribute towards a musical work before the composition’s formal components are set into a final score. However, by definition, the nature of acting as an adviser suggests that the performer can only give recommendations and suggestions to the composer, they don't have power to enforce those suggestions. In most cases the composer retains the power to make the majority of artistic choices, as well as sole authorship of the piece.4 In some cases, the composer may choose to use the margins of the score to thank the performer for her or his contributions to the composition.
Though advisory collaborative processes are manifold, the method can offer a creative situation where a performer’s artistic practice and subjectivity can form beyond the relation to instrumental craft or score interpretation. Advising offers the performer the possibility of relating their artistic practice to a specific composer and to the process of sharing an artistic journey. This relation may demand that the performer improvise, stake aesthetic positions, and/or make consequential artistic suggestions before the completion of a piece. For some performers, it is at the point of experiencing an adviser role that the performer may consider their performer-composer collaborative practice to be part of what constitutes their overall artistic practice.
The performer as deviser (see fig. 1)
The performer as deviser is the performer as co-creator or co-composer. Within the world of contemporary music, the performer as deviser is the most radical practice a performer can assume as it presents the widest range of possibilities regarding what a performer can be and how a performer can contribute to a new musical piece. The word “devise”5 in this context refers to strategies used in theater and live arts originating in the 1950's and 1960’s, most notably in the model of theater known as devised theater (Heddon & Milling, 2005, p. 1 - 3). Devised theater is a generative practice in which the traditional method of creating theater, which begins with a script and relies on a hierarchy lead by a director, is replaced with a flat structure in which all theater practitioners contribute to the creation of a new work, including the actors, scenographers, technicians, and others (Oddey, 1996, p. 4). No matter the medium, devised creations are usually made in a non-hierarchical, collective, and collaborative structure. Devised creations are usually made "from scratch", and each phase of the generative process usually involves all participating artists regardless of the artist's expertise. In devised composition, the hierarchy between the performer and composer is dissolved, allowing both parties to contribute to creative and practical decision making. Devising usually results in co-authored works. In some cases, the composer also performs on stage alongside the performer. Devising most distinctly raises the question of authorship, and it is within this form of collaboration that the performer and the composer may enter into negotiations considering authorial credit and the division of financial reward.
The following outline of tendencies in devising draws on examples from devised theater as a parallel employed to illustrate possible practices of a deviser performer. Like advisory collaboration, devising presents manifold processes and results that are often idiosyncratic to the artists involved. It is therefore useful to the reader to conceptualize devising as a spectrum in itself, with the potential that specific processes are left unrepresented within this account.
In devising, the role of the performer differs to that of more traditional compositional collaborative roles in a number of key ways. Many of these differences are grounded in the fact that the performer is integrated into the generative process as a co-creator. The devising performer thus shares with the composer the decision-making process inherent to creating a new piece. These creative and practical decisions are usually made with performer and the composer working at the same time in the same space.6 The immediacy of the devising process thus creates a bypass whereby the score is not necessarily required as tool for communicating musical ideas from the composer to the performer. Quite simply, in devised creation there is no object such as a score with which a performer interfaces, but rather the critical interaction occurs between the performer and another artistic subject. This differs to more separated collaborative models whereby most artistic decisions are ultimately made and drafted at the composer’s desk. The diminished significance of the score emphasizes the performer's relation to the composer and to the process of creation as critical relations that form a performer's subjectivity.
In addition to enhancing the relation to the composer, the devised process' displacement of the score as the performer's starting point for realizing a musical piece also offsets intepretation of a score as the primary activity of a performer. In devised composition it's even possible that the score may never be created at all. Very often, if the composition is written down it is done so primarily for the purpose of preserving the composition for future performance, rather than to communicate instructions to a performer for the first time. This act of writing-down can also happen long after the performance has happened. Theater director Simon McBurney says the following about the notion of a script or text as a step in a devising process,
“Most of the time a theatrical production is constructed in the following order: writing, rehearsal, performance and, sometimes, translation... In our creations, the process is... reversed...[it] becomes rehearsal-performance-translation-writing.” (Cavendish, 2015).
The score's loss of significance in both the generative and rehearsal processes as described in McBurney's statement is in part due to the tendency that devising often collapse the acts of creating and the act of rehearsing so that both occur at once. In this collapsed process, the material may be developed through improvisation, game playing, and other contingent methods, potentially making it feasible for the performer to create and rehearse almost simultaneously. This means that the allocation of a performers time can be radically shifted from that of more separate collaborative models whereby the majority of the performer's time is spent alone rehearsing a completed score. This potential reallocation of time away from private rehearsing can further emphasize the performer's relation to the composer, as well as to the act of creation.
Devising very often requires large spans of time to create new work. It's not necessarily that devising requires more time when compared to more separated collaborative models, it's that many devising processes require more time with the composer and performer working together in a shared space. As discussed above, the collapsed process that includes both creating and rehearsing often requires that both the composer and performer be present throughout the entire process. Acquiring the time and resources necessary for an extended devising period is not always possible. It could even be said that such a concept runs antithetical to the typical rehearsal process in contemporary music, which can span a mere handful of days (Walshe, 2016). However, the investment of time into devising not only serves the work, but can also deepen relations between collaborators. As devised theater practitioner Alexandra Desaulniers suggests, it's not just time living with a piece, it's also time living with each other,
“...we accepted that a three or even six-week rehearsal process would simply not suffice to create this show, and agreed to live with the work, and each other, for six months instead.” (Desaulniers, 2012).
Devising and co-creating also shifts the performer's relation to the notion of responsibility, meaning who in a collaboration is responsible for what and when. Devised creation creates a situation for everyone to be “in it together” in a “joint tenancy” (Meill & Littleton, 2004, p. 14). This notion relies on all participants taking responsibility and ownership for the entire piece and its process, including its reception, rather than each party taking care for only their personal and specialized work. For example, in devised creation the notion of a composer or performer “blaming” the other for the failed reception of a piece is simply not possible (Aslan & Lloyd, 2016). Simply put, the group rises and falls together.
For the performer, the demand of taking on more responsibility requires not only courage and generosity but often also new skills and dispositions. In devised creation the performer is not only an instrumentalist but also a contributor to a shared concept. This expanded responsibility again shifts the performer’s development of ‘voice’ from the instrument or score towards the act of creating from scratch. This requires not only instrumental skills but critical and creative thinking aided by research and risk taking. The performer who engages with this method of working may also experience the generative process itself as a training ground for their expanding artistic practice. Desaulniers reflects on the notion of expanding practices with the following perspective,
“As both creator and performer, the role of actor in devised theatre requires more than learning lines and inhabiting a previously established character...[it] was up to our ensemble to maintain structure...Even design elements were not off-limits for discussion...” (Desaulniers, 2012).
In a devising practice, the performer can also be a co-author, composer, improviser, researcher, designer, specialist, beginner, and, forever, so on. In this way, the performer as deviser is the most radical in its rethinking of what a performer can be and how a performer can engage in the genesis of a new work. It suggests that creating and co-authoring can also constitute a performance practice.
It can be that any single project engages with a variety of performer roles ranging from pure executor to co-creative deviser. A single collaboration can contain many elements and traverse several different processes while moving towards the creation of a single piece. As the piece develops the collaborative approach may shift. The interpreter-adviser-deviser model for considering composer-performer collaboration is intended as a method to conceptualize the role performers play in collaborations and how these roles translate into collaborative artistic practice. It is conceived a spectrum and intends to allow space for diverse, unstable, and idiosyncratic practices.
As Gyger (Gyger, 2014) also suggests, it appears that the role the performer assumes in collaboration is contingent upon the choice of when the composer and performer meet in the same space at the same time and, in turn, at what point a score becomes the primary component for communicating and realizing a musical idea. The sooner a developed score enters the process the more likely the performer will assume the role of interpreter or adviser. The later the score comes into place, the more likely the performer will be asked to improvise and/or co-create to develop the materials that form a musical piece.
It is critical for both the outcome of the work and the maintenance of the collaborative relationship that the performer understands the range of roles that they can assume in a composer-performer collaboration and that the performer decides how they want to be engaged within that collaboration. Through this understanding it is possible for the composer and the performer to discuss and agree upon a method of collaboration. The collaborative method one chooses does not presume the success nor the failure of a musical work, however frustration can arise in collaborative work in the absence of meaningful, mutual understandings of consent (Temple, 2015). The discussion of how a collaborative partnership will function is one that ideally takes place before a creative process begins and one that also continues as the piece progresses.
Collaboration is a practice. It is fundamentally a mode of interfacing with another. It is an act in which identities are formed and changed through the entanglement and mixing-up with another. To return to the original question, “what is a performer for?”, it is in part through methods of collaboration that performers understand what and for whom they are “for”. In other words, it is in large part through collaboration that performers understand their musical, and therefore artistic, identity. Through modes of collaboration that recast performers outside their traditional roles one is able to imagine manifold becomings of the performer as co-creative artist exhibiting agency including and beyond the realms of a score and its interpretations. The notion of the performer is not a fixed idea; it is a subjectivity multiplicitous both in definition and in practice. The collaborative practices going on "behind the scenes" in the creation of a new work are as much a contributor to a performer's artistic practice as that which occurs on the stage. It behooves us all to rethink the concept of the performer and the question of what a performer is for, because the performer is already all of the above, whether they take for it credit or not.