Only Your Composer Knows For Sure

Only Your Composer Knows For Sure

Not having a background in instrumental performance, I used to be puzzled when players would talk to me about “faking” passages of music. Were they just miming? Were they improvising? I still don’t really know what it means to fake a piece, but since I’ve entered grad school and had the opportunity to deal with a number of student performers, I’ve heard this term more and more. (As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to be able to work with high-level faculty performers—if they were faking, they certainly never let the cat out of the bag in front of me.)

My composer friends and I are in near-unanimous agreement that a “faked” performance of our music is far better than no performance at all. In fact, we wish we could convince the student players here to fake more comfortably! This is particularly true for those of us who write music whose performance practice is, in a sense, approximative; a commitment to the affect of the piece, so to speak, is of greater importance to us than the precision of the quarter tones or the metric modulations or whatever. At the very least, if the spirit is there, we’ll tolerate from student performers inaccuracies of the sort that would be unacceptable from professionals.

There are two sides, however, to this issue of preparation: I’m content with a convincingly faked rendition, but I have to wonder how my music and my colleagues’ would sound if our collaborators spent as much time rehearsing it as they do Mozart and Beethoven. I understand that this is an unreasonable request; student players are institutionally required to learn their classics, and when they take on our pieces, it’s usually nothing more than a personal favor.

I suppose what really bothers me is the lost potential for a creative relationship. If, for example, I were to win a competition and have a piece played by the Ensemble Sospeso or Elision or some comparable group, it would be a hell of a line for my resume, but I’d probably have very little time to work out the subtleties of the piece with the players. A student performer, on the other hand, should theoretically have more time to devote to my music than a jet-setting new music ensemble might and therefore more time to acquaint him- or herself with the soul of the piece. Furthermore, it’s much easier for a student composer like myself to cultivate a fruitful long-term collaboration with a peer than it might be with a cadre of internationally renowned specialists. Although the student might have to “fake” more of the piece at first, results down the line could be more satisfying…but only if he or she puts down the Brahms long enough to get a solid grip, and that’s a tall order.

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3 thoughts on “Only Your Composer Knows For Sure

  1. jlz

    Faking it
    Ives famously said “Play the music, not the notes” — meaning, get the *stuff* of the piece into your head and fingers, and the go for it.

  2. jbunch

    One reason why performers are driven to faking it is perhaps that nearly every piece of new music that I have seen by student composers (myself included) seems to be inadvertantly consumed with pushing the abilities of performers into technical areas where their education has yet to see the worth of addressing. This is not a bash on anyone, just an attempt to recognize the reality of our situation in academia. I am convinced that Mozart gets massive numbers of performances – and many times such high quality performances – because an orchestra can put his music together in 3 rehearsals or less. His musical language has been subsumed into a broad repertory of readily accesible performance practices. There is no need to fake the familiar.
    In my music, there are certainly individual gestures that are meant to be read in approximative ways, but things like rhythmic relationships, timbral techniques, and to some extent tempo are not. The faking of these elements (which perhaps reveal “kinks” in my ability to create realistic instrumental idioms) are what often result in the not-so-splended performances and recordings that sometimes happen.
    What a predicament! While I am thrilled in an almost evangelical way when any performer decides to take on the task of premiering a piece of my music (to some extent regardless of the exactitude of the results), I also must recognize the importance of having good recordings for competitions and doctoral school applications.
    Where does the answer lie? Do I need to soften up the demands of my music (I don’t see this necessarily as negative compromise)? Does the answer lie in the structuring of rehearsal times, or selecting of the proper musicians (which is often beyond our control)? Arrrrrrrgh! Heeeeellllp! **glub, glub**

  3. Colin Holter

    What to do?
    Thanks for the responses. My contention is that I’d much rather have a piece I really believe in with a poor recording than a kick-ass recording of a piece I don’t feel strongly about.
    Of course, both would be ideal.


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