Performers and Composers as Co-creators

Bruce Ellis Benson in his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, argues that instead of choosing between Werktreu[1] or a kind of musical anarchy, we should look to the past where we find a way of conceiving music composition as an event in which the composer and performer become “co-creators.” Using Gadamar as a way to help us to begin thinking about models of music composition, Ellis writes, “Gadamer claims that an ideal dialogue has what he calls the ‘logical structure of openness.’ I think there are at least two aspects to this ‘openness.’ First, the conversation often brings something into the open: it sheds new light on what is being discussed and allows us to think about it (or, in this case, hear it) in a new way. Second, the dialogue is itself open, since it (to quote Gadamer) is in a ‘state of indeterminacy.’ In order for a genuine dialogue to take place, the outcome cannot be settled in advance. Without at least some ‘loose-play’ or uncertainty, true conversation is impossible” (p. 15). As Benson notes, Gadamar of course realizes that this is the “ideal” for conversations and that they do not always flesh out in this manner. Likewise, in stressing “openness,” Gadamer is not suggesting that dialogues are without rules. Rather, “the rules are what allow the conversation to take place at all. In effect, they open up a kind of space in which dialogue can be conducted” (p. 15). Though rules are essential for a dialogue to occur, they can be overly restrictive or more on the “open” and “flexible” side and “are themselves open to continuing modification” (p. 15). Though today we tend to think of classical music as not particularly open, Benson shows that historically this view is relatively new and in fact is only one way, not the way to view composition. For example, in the 1800s there were two characteristic ways of conceiving composition and these were exemplified by Beethoven and Rossini. Though no doubt these composers represent two different styles of music, the deeper significance lies in the differing ways that they understand the nature of musical compositions, the role of the performance in expressing them, and the relation between the artist and the community (p. 16). As Benson explains, “Beethoven saw his symphonies as ‘inviolable musical “texts” whose meaning is to be deciphered with ‘exegetical’ interpretations; a Rossini score, on the other hand, is a mere recipe for a performance’ (Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 9 [Benson, p. 16]. In other words, Beethoven’s view is the more recent, innovative view that has come to characterize how we think of classical music as Werktreu, whereas Rossini’s conception was significantly more flexible, allowing the performer to participate in the creative process. Moreover, for Rossini, “it was not the work that was given precedence; rather, the work (and thus the composer) was in effect a partner in dialogue with performers and listeners” (Ibid., pp. 16-17).

A number of interesting parallels might be drawn in relation to Biblical hermeneutics.

[1] A rather strict faithfulness first to the work and second to the composer.

3 thoughts on “Performers and Composers as Co-creators”

  1. I thought about recommending this book to you on one of your previous posts. I studied under Benson at Wheaton and I really like his work.

    His book, “Graven Idolatry” is also good, though it seems aimed at a undergraduate or more popular audience.

  2. Have you read Stravinsky’s thoughts on composition? I don’t remember much (it was back in undergrad, somewhere in stravinsky’s princeton lectures), but he thought of musical composition similar to Aquinas/Maritain’s idea of abstractive cognition.

  3. Hi Garrett,

    I haven’t read any of Stravinsky’s works, but Benson mentions some of his views a number of times in his book. Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music seems particularly interesting.

    Would you expand a bit more on the Aquinas/Maritain view of musical composition as abstractive cognition?

    Glad you are commenting again!

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