Edward Klorman

Performers as Creative Agents: Mapping the Terrain

When listening to music, do we attend to the utterance of the composer who created the ‘work’ or to the musician(s) who perform it? Is evidence of the performer’s creative agency manifest in musical performances? Is it a performer’s role merely to faithfully execute the work as conceived by its creator? Or if a performer is to ‘interpret’ the music, how do creative choices determine musical meaning?
This practical presentation considers a counterexample from rock music to illustrate certain common biases and assumptions within classical instrumental performance. Whereas Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 breakthrough hit Girls Just Want to Have Fun has been acclaimed as an “anthem of female solidarity” (Gaar 2002), Lauper initially rejected the song based on the original 1979 recording by songwriter Robert Hazard, whose forceful, Bowie-esque performance suggests a message of male sexual conquest. That Lauper managed to transform the song’s feel and meaning so totally, while keeping the same melody and (mostly) same lyrics, evinces the creative agency rock musicians wield in performance and videos (cf. Zak 2001 and Burns 2010).
In contrast, many classical instrumentalists remain influenced by 19th-century German notions of Werktreue that subordinate the performer’s agency to that of the ‘work’ and its composer (Goehr 1992). Nevertheless, any performance of a composed work necessarily involves creative choices that determine aspects of affect, timing, timbre, dynamic shaping, etc., and even affect structural aspects such as the interpretation of cadences (Burstein 2010). This presentation considers a number of passages - some that I will perform live on the viola, and others that I will consider based on recorded performances - to illustrate that a performer’s creative agency has a greater impact than is commonly acknowledged by music theorists and that it has implications for the analysis of musical performances (as distinguished from the analysis of musical scores proper).