On Creative Choices, Creative Intentions

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Some of the voicings I have been puzzling overSome of the voicings I have been puzzling overOne of the orthodoxies of my musical upbringing and subsequent teaching life is that the performer should respect the composer’s intentions. In practical terms this entails, at the basic level, playing the music presented in the score accurately – i.e. all the pitches written, in the durational relationships represented by the notation.

This basic level is never really challenged, though it is inflected as you move educationally beyond a literalist approach to the score to understanding it as a document emerging from a historical and cultural context. ‘Style’ is the shorthand term used to embrace the range of types of information used as filters through which to interpret the written score: changing notational conventions, changes in the construction and thus sound of instruments, changing aesthetic ideals and their impact on tone production, articulation, timing, and embellishment.

The idea remains to use all contextual knowledge to make inductive decisions about what the composer ‘really meant’ when they wrote the piece of music. This idea is routinely critiqued without materially affecting the extent to which the entire culture of classical music complies with it.

Undergraduates tend to critique it by pointing out that you can never actually get inside someone else’s head. Postgraduate conversations, informed by a greater insight into editorial processes, move onto a critique of the ‘work’ as stable object in the first place. If the score we are working from has been compiled with reference to two different autograph scores, using the first printed edition to help resolve the discrepancies, to what extent did the composer even know what their intentions were anyway?

I’ve been thinking about this recently from a dual perspective, as both performer and creator. I’ve been learning Florence Price’s Fantasie Nègre no. 2 in G minor, and finding myself asking all kinds of questions of the score that I probably would not have asked before spending years creating scores for other people to perform. A lot of them are about voicing: why did she choose to include the 7th in a dominant here, but not here? Why are most of the RH diminished 7ths in this passage written as complete handfuls, with a full five notes, but a few with only four?

The thing is, as a creator myself I know that some of these choices will have been very carefully thought through and decided for very specific reasons, while others will be just what came to hand in shaping the overall musical narrative. The latter will still of course be reflective of her creative persona – what comes intuitively without the need to second-guess yourself is just as much part of the creative process as what you hammer out in great detail for consciously-articulated purposes.

But it does mean that when, as a performer, you are asking, ‘Why did she choose these notes rather than those?’ you never know whether her answer would have been to point out her workings or to shrug. It’s still a good question to ask, of course, as the inductive process it takes you through leads to greater understanding, and thence a more interesting performance, of the music. But you need to accept that a lot of the time you are imputing deliberate intention to things that the creator did on a whim.

Of course, when your creator is still alive, you can invite them over to coach your ensemble, or even just have an hour together on zoom chatting about their work and you get to ask these questions and discover something about the decision-making process. Not planning to expire any time soon, but if you wanted to find out what I was thinking about when I created your arrangement, do ask before you outlive me.

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