Alex Temple on consent in new music

Alex Temple‘s recent NewMusicBox article “Composers, Performers, and Consent” raises a number of difficult, but rarely voiced, questions about the composer–performer relationship, and particularly that between male composers and female performers. She refers to a conversation she had with the singer Jessica Aszodi:

During one recording session, she told me, a composer pushed her to repeat a particular sound four times, despite her warning that she could only safely do it once.  As a result, she lost her voice.  Here the danger of the Stravinskian model [that a score is an objective text to executed, rather than interpreted] is very concrete:  the composer’s insistence that she follow the score as written physically harmed her, and temporarily took away her primary source of income.  And there’s another power dynamic at work here, too.  New music vocalists, as Jess pointed out, are predominantly women—and the composers who have told her things like “I don’t care how it’s done, I just want you to do it” have all been men.  She also told me that she often receives scores from male composers that are written for a “generic soprano” rather than for her particular voice and personality—often based on archetypal female roles, with markings like “angelic.”

Temple also refers – and not having seen it before, I am especially grateful for this – to a blogpost by another singer, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, on the subject of failure in music. In particular, composed failure, in which performers are asked to commit to activities that exceed their abilities and so open up a more naked, glitchier, unstable expressive terrain. Works like this have become commonplace, beginning with pieces as Heinz Holliger’s Cardiophonie, Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II, Georges Aperghis’ Recitations and György Kurtág’s Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, and continuing right up to any number of pieces by younger composers.

Bartlett’s concern is broadly with the continuing validity of such approaches, and what they mean to a performer – “If the goal of a piece is failure, I’d rather not succeed” – but what Temple does is open these concerns to a much wider issue of consent: “The problem isn’t the idea of performers as objective executors;  it’s composers putting them in that role without asking.” This might be just be reframing older questions of the composer–performer dynamic within a new, more liberal mindset, but I think the questions still beg answering.

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