I remember a time (as surely anyone who has ever created anything can) when every note I wrote was sacrosanct. <em>That</em> is how I wrote this, and <em>that</em> is how it shall remain. Fortunately, that period was incredibly short-lived. Maybe it’s because I started life as a performer. And maybe because, as a performer, I tended toward Broadway, where the written note, the written rhythm, are the barest guidelines for performance: the great Broadway singers transform the square quarter- and eighth notes on the page into something altogether different and more alive. Even pitch material gets reworked in performance so that the original melodies become forever changed – the <em>definitive</em> performance often bears little resemblance to the composer’s written score.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that such a thing should be done in the concert realm. Concert music as we know it is very controlled in the ways that works should be performed: if the score says X, do X. But I’ve definitely been marked by my experience.
That being said: often, particularly in vocal music, a performer will accidentally play/sing what is technically a wrong note – viz, it is not written in the score. I’ve often rewritten passages in my songs to integrate a particularly felicitous “mistake” in performance or rehearsal. Maybe a soprano, in rehearsals, doesn’t realize she’s singing something slightly off from how it was notated; I hear it, love it, and point out to the soprano what she’s been singing wrong, but instruct her not to change a thing – her error is more elegant and beautiful than what I had originally written.
I had a similar thing happen during the rehearsal process for the re-launch of the Tobenski-Algera Concerts last month. Tim Kiah, the composer of one of the songs on the program, attended a rehearsal during the week before the concert, and Marc and I ran through his song so that he could offer observations, criticisms, and corrections. After a few instructions on phrasing, he mentioned that I was singing the final phrase wrong: rather than singing X note, I was singing Y, something I’d not noticed myself since what I had been singing was in perfect keeping with similar motives that had come before. His instruction, though, was to keep doing what I was doing: sing it “wrong”, because he was going to integrate that change into the score because he liked it better.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a performance or rehearsal of a work of mine, noticed a “wrong note”, and decided to keep it. Or the number of times a performer has asked for a slight revision to ease a particularly difficult passage. Invariably, the change is so minor to the overall effect of the score, yet so major because it allows the performer more ease in performance, that not to make the change would be pure folly. And honestly, had they made the change without my knowledge, I’d be none the wiser, so imperceptible are most of these shifts.
And then there are those composers whose work I’ve performed who wouldn’t accept suggestions of this kind: they had written it <em>this</em> way, so I should work harder to do exactly what was on the page. There’s something here that’s more than a little off-putting. Chances are that I’m being poorly paid (if I’m being paid at all) to put in a lot of rehearsal time for a single performance of a work. And chances are that all I’m asking for is an entrance to be doubled in the accompaniment, or that the vocal line be in some way supported. I (or anyone else who might perform the work) am doing this composer a favor. So why is he looking down his nose at me for trying to perform his piece well? I’m not stupid for not being able to find my pitch – there’s a good reason for it. And I’m less likely to want to perform works by this composer again because of this experience.
I see this form of revision as good faith toward my performers. If there’s something I can do to make their lives easier, I’m happy to (within reason, of course) in hopes that they will appreciate my efforts on their behalf and a) perform my music well, and b) perform my music <em>again</em>.