Imperfect Dichotomy

February 2016

As published in BLATT 3000

A fellow musician, a composition student, once told me her teacher’s first words were: »as a composer, you shouldn’t perform your own pieces«. Yet, apart from the obvious advantage of being an »outside eye (and ear)« to your own work, should it necessarily be so?

Composers compose: study hours and hours of harmony, counterpoint and voice leading, instrumentation (piano, violin, trumpet …), conducting, Max MSP and who knows what else. Performers perform: master the art of playing their instrument, striving for musical and technical perfection. They mediate between the audience and the composer. It is clear however, that composition and performance are treated as two very different and separate disciplines.

Such a sharp dichotomy between the ›designer‹ and the ›executant‹ is particular to music. Or, more accurately, this distinction is unique to classical music, both as an industry and an institution. I would like to explore this division and trace its origins. My intention is not to critique either the performer or the composer as such; rather, to reflect and initiate a discussion regarding these two roles. How did such a division come to be?

Think of ›realist‹ painters. Throughout their studies, these representational painters sketch and work with live models, learn about historical art styles and also study anatomy. Similar to a musician learning to play pieces from various periods, a painter often copies famous paintings in order to develop a greater technical ability, control and sensitivity. Both the musician and the painter are then interpreters of existing art works. However, the purpose of their interpretation is different. Artists copy existing art works for the purpose of learning how they are made and in order to develop their own individual artistic language, eventually enabling them to create their own art works. Instrumentalists are educated from a very young age to read music and perform the great and endless classical music canon. In some conservatories they may be encouraged to take composition classes; some might have musician parents who can guide them to explore different directions. But often the competitive reality of aspiring to and training for an instrumental career doesn’t leave any room for anything else.

Studying music, one is often told about the glorious days when musicians could spontaneously improvise whole cadenzas to a concerto, when notation was merely a reminder of an oral tradition – it was definitely not about notating every tiny detail of execution to the highest level of accuracy. Back in the days of early music, it was understood that one should not play the notes written on paper just as they are; the music had its swing, the famous inégales and diminutions. Musicians often played more than one instrument and also composed their own music.

Why is it then that today all these fields are so far apart?

Traveling by public transportation, one encounters billboards starring an elegantly dressed pianist, seated by a Steinway, leaning the head gently on top of their hands, gazing dreamily into the beyond. Imagine a piano recital at the Philharmonie, the piano turned sideways to the audience, so they can see the pianist. The playing is flawless, perhaps as perfect as a recording, and of course all of the pieces played by heart. Sounds familiar?

If the concert experience as we know it today might be attributed to anyone, it might definitely be Franz Liszt, one of the music-world’s first superstars. Liszt established the concept of a virtuoso soloist and introduced the solo music recital as a genre. He placed the grand piano sideways to the audience so that his expressions and gestures were made visible. He played entire concert programs by heart (which at the time was considered almost disrespectful towards the composer of the work) and offered a solo act for an entire concert (previously a pianist would often perform one piece as a part of a varied program). Liszt also introduced the concept of a »masterclass« inaugurating the music teacher’s role as maestro.

Commenting on Liszt’s performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonate Op. 106 in the Salle Erard (1836), Hector Berlioz described the extraordinary performance: A new Oedipus, Liszt, has solved it, solved it in such a way that had the composer himself returned from the grave, a paroxysm of joy and pride would have swept over him. Not a note was left out, not one added … no inflection was effaced, no change of tempo permitted. Liszt, in thus making comprehensible a work not yet comprehended, has proved that he is the pianist of the future.

Since Liszt not only performed works of fellow composers (among them Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven) but himself wrote over 1400 pieces, he also serves as an example of a musician’s practice preceding the division of labor between interpreters and composers.

In his essay Beethovens Instrumentalmusik, the German author, music critic and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann suggests musical practice should no longer serve social, religious or scientific purposes. To the contrary, the musical work should be autonomous, self-determined. Hoffmann concludes his essay with a somewhat outrageous description of the »true artist«, which prominently defined the role of the performer and introduced the concept of a true or faithful interpretation of a musical work: Werktreue.
The genuine artist lives only for the work, which he understands as the composer understood it and which he now performs. He does not make his personality count in any way. All his thoughts and actions are directed towards bringing into being all the wonderful, enchanting pictures and impressions the composer sealed in his work with magical power. Could a performer truly live up to Hoffmann’s standards? And is it really the point? To forbid a performer to express her individual personality, solely for the purpose of attempting to realise the composer’s ideas? Is this even possible? In any case, his descriptions have survived in today’s ideal of ›Der Interpret‹.


Prior to the time of vinyl, cassettes and online streaming, one had to physically play oneself or attend a performance to hear music, and live performers were necessary to this experience. Musicologists couldn’t just listen to a recording of a work for research purposes. Back in the 1960s a debate revolved around the future of public concerts and the impact of electronic technologies on the music industry. Fifty years later, orchestras still exist and architects are still commissioned to build lavish concert halls around the world.

Glenn Gould, among the prominent pioneers of recording, discussed in detail the prospects of recording in a 90 minute 1966 radio program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which was followed by a wide ranging article published in High Fidelity Magazine, April 1966. To better understand the unfolding of ›Der Interpret‹, note Gould’s outlook concerning studio editing – ›the splendid splice‹:

By taking advantage of the post-taping afterthought […] one can very often transcend the limitations that performance imposes upon the imagination […]. When the performer makes use of this postperformance editorial decision, his role is no longer compartmentalized. In a quest for perfection, he sets aside the hazards and compromises of his trade. As an interpreter, as a go-between serving both audience and composer, the performer has always been, after all, someone with a specialist’s knowledge about the realization or actualization of notated sound symbols. It is, then, perfectly consistent with such experience that he should assume something of an editorial role.

The »hazards« and »compromises« of the instrumentalist’s trade have become even more complicated thanks to the »splendid splice«. Listeners are now accustomed to an almost inhuman standard of perfection, listening to studio-recorded, edited and mixed recordings that represent a new sound ideal. This new sound is expected, in turn, to be heard on a similar level of perfection, if not higher, in live concerts and auditions.

Similar processes of compartmentalization and specialization have resulted in the widespread notion of the composer today. The cliché of the billboard-classical-pianist is available to us here as well: an older, brilliant and perhaps disturbed man (the crazy scientist), sitting in a tiny room at the top of an old Parisian building, laboring night and day over scores, surrounded by previous crumpled versions of his own work. The genius. But clearly this notion has since been superseded: since the Romantic period and parallel to the emergence of the virtuoso, the definition of a composer as a prodigy, who could compose and improvise grandiose musical pieces already as a child (i.e. Mozart), has changed. The composer’s profession could now be described as an architect planning projects of different scales.

We also see an entanglement between different disciplines – music, acoustics, philosophy, mathematics, dance, theater, contemporary media, sound recording, cinema and computer programming among others. The economic framework upon which the composers are dependent has been radically transformed from a system of aristocratic patronage to state subsidy systems or radical commercialization, forcing specialization and splintering of genres. All in all, the art of composition has become increasingly distanced from that of performance.


In an ever-growing competitive world I find it challenging not to lose myself to the decrees of institutions. Music festivals, conservatories, competitions and academies (the bodies comprising the economic model of classical music) set the tone by labeling each subfield of music under a different genre, thus not only contributing to the separation between composers and performers but also between jazz, »popular«, electronic, experimental and film music etc.

There is nothing in Music, for example, to compare with certain drawings of Mondrian, where we still see the contours and rhythms that have been erased, while another alternative has been drawn on top of them. Music’s tragedy is that it begins with perfection.

The most fundamental aspect of music is sound, which is always changing in time. There is no »perfection«. Thinking about music in terms of perfection might be the source of all evil. What is this »perfection« anyway?

Playing comes from the word ›play‹. Let’s all remember that music in all of its forms – performing, composing, improvising and experimenting – is based on one thing: playing (with) music.