Sara Paar

It’s the performer, stupid!

Music isn’t what composers make. Music is what performers make.

Even the score to a proven crowd-pleaser like, say, Ravel’s Bolero isn’t very entertaining all by itself. (Piles of paper rarely are, unless they’re on fire.) What you’ve got there in that pile of paper is a blueprint for music. Even those composers who create fixed-media works are in the same boat, even though it’s a mechanical or electronic player that does the performing: watching a CD sit on a desk is flat boring, and watching an mp3 file sit on a hard drive even more so.

Not an original or even a new idea, but I have been thinking about this since seeing a stunning performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle Pierrot Lunaire last night by soprano Sara Paar and a very fine group of instrumentalists. Pierrot Lunaire is the piece that introduced sprechstimme, a half-sung, half-spoken version of vocal performance that derived from German cabaret. It is on everyone’s list of the most important pieces of music of the 20th century, but it’s more respected (and studied) than it is beloved. At least, that was how I felt about it—until I saw Sara perform it.

The only other performance of this I’d seen live was, seemingly all about counting. Others I’ve heard on recording seemed to emphasize the strangeness of the music, as if to say, “See how good I am, that I’m performing such complicated, eerie, obscure music!”  Sara, however, committed to the material totally, face, body, voice and soul, as did her ensemble, and it was absolutely riveting. It was a fantastically rewarding experience, and I’d have to say that whatever time and effort Arnold put into writing the thing a century ago was well worth it for this performance alone. For me, this is now what Pierrot Lunaire is—not the score, but this performance, which the score made possible. Rather than Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, as performed by Sara Paar, it’s now Sara Paar’s Pierrot Lunaire, as composed by Arnold Schoenberg.

This notion that a piece of music “belongs” to the person who wrote the notes down on paper is a peculiar legacy of the 19th century, still alive in our little corner of the arts world, but almost nowhere else. I’m happy to have my name on the piles of paper—but I try not to pretend I’m making music when I put the little dots and lines down.

Last spring I wrote texts and music for a miniature (5-minute) song cycle, Escape/Delete/Space/Enter/Home. I was writing very much with the performer in mind; it has a limited vocal range, easy, totally transposable piano parts, and texts written to be applicable to nearly anyone’s personal experience—ready to be filled in with the performer’s own subtext. I performed them recently with baritone Andrew White. If you like, you can have your computer perform for you Andy’s and my performance of the pile of paper I put dots on.

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