Working with Composers – Interpreting Dots

Background: In 2007 I started the New Lullaby Project ( Since then I have premiered 16 new works for guitar, recorded a CD (to be released) and have many more on hand. Working with the over 20 composers has opened my eyes to what is possible in the sound and interpretation of dots (music). This is just some thoughts and observations.

One of the greatest aspects of being an artist of the performing kind, is working with artists of the creating kind, namely composers. Most of the time these dealings are wonderful and quite humbling. I have the responsibility to convey meaning through a bunch of black dots and symbols into emotions in a way that is both individual to me and respectful of the composer’s intent. One would think that since this is the case that composers would include important details in their sound realizations (scores), but no, this is not always true!

One of my favorite composers, Toru Takemitsu, “maps out” his pieces beautifully, creating a whole new level of understanding. I often use his scores as examples to students and other composers about how detailed one can be. He goes far beyond the occasional dynamic marking. When needed he’ll include such details as timbre changes, meter changes and even rubatos. Check out my performance of “Equinox” from my CD, Tracing a wheel on water as an example.

Some people say that so many details are constraining and cloud the ability to learn and play the music in their own way, but I find that the most important questions of, “what does this composer want?” to be mostly answered, though never fully, with these symbols. Once one masters the “directions” than one is set free to move within those rules or decide to break them. Bach did the same in many of his fugues.

I do not feel trapped by such markings, for they are only symbols, and once mastered the music is no longer Takemitsu’s but mine to interpret. I can agree and disagree with Takemitsu all I want, but I do have a responsibility to at least learn his requests, judge, and then make a decision on what the piece/phrase needs. This the Art.

Sometimes dealing with composers can be quite awful or uncomfortable, to the point that I understand why musicians play dead composers: no one to complain about one’s choices!

If a composer wants a phrase shaped one way, than he/she should include dynamic marks and accents as needed, or do not be alarmed if a different interpretation than intended arises. If the music moves forward say so! Writing very precise rhythms and then saying free is a bit confounding! Though one is free to get what he/she wants, it is probably best than to write for a computer, having an open ear to your own dots can be creation.

I understand that many of these directions are implied in music from the Renaissance, Bach, Schubert and beyond, but we are in the 21st century and Bach and Schubert are dead. Printing costs are not what they used to be, add the accent! I find it amazing how many different composers use the same symbols but they mean different things to each and want different results (ie. legato/slurs, phrase marking, even rhythm, ringing).

This point of interpreting symbols can be difficult, but the challenge also allows for opportunity: meetings with the composers to get closer to what they really mean. I know it can frustrating on both sides, I have seen this first hand and wish I could just know, but a piece of paper covered in dots is not music or a human being. It is just a map…a map to serenity.

To paraphrase K. Gilbran:

“Your music is not your music…once in my hands it is mine…once in the audiences ears it is theirs!”

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