What do we mean when we say there is a collaborative relationship between composer and performer? This word might seem to be a strange one to use for a relationship that often can feel more one-sided than truly collaborative: the performer using their artistic ideas and skills to realize the composer’s vision as best they can. In the case of living composers, it is often true that there can be lots of communication back and forth, but often it involves the performer making suggestions or changes for the explicit purpose of once again realizing the vision solely of the composer. This is not to say that the performer’s artistic vision does not exist in a fixed work, but instead that the most often-expressed purpose of interpretation is in service of the composer’s ideas.

In the case of long-dead composers, this idea of interpretation and realization of the composer’s vision joins itself with the complex notion of historical performance practice. Often (though not always) the goal is stated that we should attempt to realize the piece “as the composer intended”, or “as they would have heard it back in that time”. However, when specifically thinking about improvisatory historical performance practice, this becomes especially strange – when the practice itself involves the performer freely expressing their own artistic vision (as in improvised cadenzas), do we have to limit our ideas and creativity to what we believe (with our modern biases) to be the ideas and creativity that a performer would have had at the time? What is our goal in improvisation? And what is the composer’s goal in creating performer agency?

Performer agency exists in a complex relationship to these ideas of collaboration and the composer’s artistic vision. Many types and facets of performer agency exist, but one found very commonly in new music is aleatoricism – the usage of “randomness” or the choice of a performer (such as “play notes using the following pitch collection extremely fast”) to generate a specific, non-random musical effect. This is a kind of “false” agency, because in fact, if the performer correctly follows the directions, they have little actual choice over the outcome. Aleatoricism is a sort of shorthand – the composer wants to achieve a certain effect, and writes a notation that would result in it. The performer’s choices, while they do exist, are in a sense not important – they do not affect the outcome of the piece.

In many ways this piece is a reaction against that conception of the performer/composer relationship. In this piece, a wide variety of distinct and unusual parameters are left to be determined by the performer, and these parameters are deliberately structured so as to be important – crucial for how the music develops and progresses. It is very possible to create a version of this piece using the freedom given that may not musically work (though, of course, the idea of some interpretations “working” and some not is by itself a difficult concept to address). What this does is it gives the performer power to create their own artistic vision that may deliberately not be a vision that I as the composer expect or agree with, but that doesn’t make it any less “right”. The performer’s artistry and ideas are not for the purpose of realizing or validating that of the composer’s, but their own.

The piece features three sections that each present the performer with a different aspect of the music to control, from what strings to play on to how to arrange fragments together to what types of gestures to use. These sections are connected by improvised cadenzas based on short prompts. This piece draws loosely on elements and ideas from baroque performance practice such as the strategic dilemma of breaking large chords up that cannot be played simultaneously, string-indepentent tablature notation, and improvised cadenzas. However, it is not intended to emulate a baroque musical style or manner of performance; the purpose of these elements is to bring the piece into dialogue with notions of historical performance practice and how that affects, enables, and challenges performer agency; as well as give an opportunity to the performer to feature the unique sound and color of a baroque instrument in a perhaps somewhat unusual context.

Huge thanks to my amazing friend and violinist Judith Kim for her incredible artistry, support, and ideas. The creation of this piece would not have been possible without her.

Score (pdf):

For additional information, questions, or parts requests, contact Aidan.