Ending the Autonomy of Musical Authorship


As a composer, artist, and writer I often dwell on the dissimilarity between these three seemingly connected fields. As it stands, there is one such difference which puzzles me more than any other; the composer’s relation to his or her own authorship. In comparison to our contemporaries in literature and art, composers seem hardwired to the belief that we should create work independently. Furthermore, many colleagues often express the same sentiment: being a composer is lonely! Following many isolated hours of working on a project alone, we take pride in seeing its title page bear our name.


But why is this the accepted norm of practice in our field?


It mostly has to do with its history and the development of compositional pedagogy. As the ‘virtuoso concert musician’ emerged in the 19th century, the disparity between the role of the composer and musician widened. Structurally the academy changed – there were those who performed and those who composed. Author and composer Charles Wuorinen reminds us in his book Simple Composition, that the aesthetic decisions and demands of a composer increased dramatically in the twentieth century. Following suit, the act of teaching composition became more independent than had been seen previously, and for the young pupil, this meant a self contained practice. As a violinist must practice hours each day, so too must a composer to develop his or her own artistic voice. In this way, it has become the norm to measure the worth of composer by their individual contributions.

Now I find myself questioning the importance of ‘my voice’ as it relates to the whole, the audience, and to the musical experience.

Currently, there is an increasing popularity with ergodic literature and cyber text for poets, playwrights, and novelists to revel in the freedom of limited control. Many have started groups to co-author whole works; each member being of equal importance to its outcome. In the field of Live Art, collaboration and codependency are cornerstones in its evolution as an academia. Ephemerality and body are inherently limiting, so then, such artist seek collaborators for the development of one coherent work. In composition, we are often eager to collaborate in interdisciplinary situations – for instance working with graphic artists, choreographers, or film directors. Yet few examples exist of compositional works which have uniquely blended two or more composers. Of the collaborative works that do exist, they are usually segmented with defined roles for each; “I’ll write the music if you orchestrate it”… “Let us write an opera – I’ll do the first and third acts if you can manage the second and the overture.”


Why is it that we as composers do not explore the possibility of working together?


Imagine this – you sit down to write and only hold yourself accountable for one singular musical phrase. You hum it. You notate it. Give it a quick mediation and then send it on its way. Your colleague receiving this plays it and without fixating proceeds with the next musical gesture. And so it goes, to and fro, until the work arrives at some mutually agreeable ending. Meeting for coffee you both edit, arguing terribly about how the work develops all wrong, and that the line on page five is just terrible. With an open mind you find common ground, the work synthesizes, and on the night of its premier two unique minds bow together without concern for individuality. United, you have done something we rarely see in composition; created a work from which emerges an entirely new voice.

Stephen WEBB (USA)

Chicago based composer, sound artist and writer having his exchange period in the Music Technology department at Sibelius Academy, Helsinki. Since spring 2016 a Korvat auki member.