From symbol to sound

As a child, most of the standard classical repertoire was unknown to me so when I started listening to classical music in my early teens, every piece I listened to was a startling discovery. Some pieces I liked, others I loved, and the ones I loved I listened to over and over again. At that time I had no capacity to discern between a good and a bad interpretation, so I would not think too much before buying a record as long as the piece and the composer were right. Later on, as I listened to the same pieces over and over again, I started to notice a subtle difference between orchestras, soloists and conductors. As I listened more intently, those differences became greater and greater to the point that I could not tolerate some versions at all and I had to put them aside altogether.

The more progress I made in my piano lessons, the more I understood the difficulties of performance. My goal was never to become a pianist, but I did put a lot of effort into delivering as good a performance as I possibly could. I learned to admire the painstaking process of practicing for several hours and working on a single page for days or even weeks. But this effort paid off; the more I played a piece the more I discovered in it. Great performers have a unique capacity to communicate the fruits of their labor to us; they have the physical dexterity, mental concentration and emotional intelligence needed to bring the best out of the most intricate scores with such ease that we might even forget the long hours of hard work behind each performance. But a great score is essential; a score able to withstand hundreds of performances yet still remain fresh and rewarding. The combination great score-great performer is a luxury that cannot be overestimated.

Listening to live performances sharpened my ears and made me more aware of the enormous influence that a performer can have over the audience’s reception. Debussy is the type of composer who, in my opinion, cannot withstand a bad performance. His orchestral colors, refined textures and delicate instrumental balance are so hard to bring about that a bad performance would simply destroy his music. And although in truth, no piece of music can withstand a bad performance, I would argue that a symphony by Beethoven, for example, can somehow get its message across even if it is not played very well. This, of course, has nothing to do with the quality of the music; instead it might be related to the fact that Debussy calls for much more subtle instrumental techniques (which are essential if one is to understand his music) while Beethoven’s focus on motivic treatment and development gives the listener clear, recognizable landmarks from which to cling on to and therefore follow the structure of the piece with less difficulty.

But in the end there is no better way to acknowledge the relevance of a good interpretation than to listen to one’s own music played by different performers. I have been fortunate enough to have my music played by different soloists, ensembles and orchestras and I can certainly tell that the very same piece can sound surprisingly different depending on who is on stage. When talking about great orchestras the differences are not so much in quality but in style, and they will mostly depend on the conductor’s understanding of the piece. The greatest instance to appreciate these subtleties is not during the concert but in rehearsals; the least I have to say during a rehearsal the more satisfied I am, because this means that the performers have anticipated my thoughts and opinions leaving me with very little to say. I love when the performer transcends the written notes and impresses his/her own vision upon the piece. Sometimes this vision might be in accordance with mine, sometimes not. If I feel strongly against it I will of course let the performer know, but most of the times this happened it meant kind of a revelation for me too, as if the player was able to discover something that had been hidden even to me. And this is a magic moment because it means that the piece has started a life of its own.

Some of my the best collaborations have been with close friends, especially when featuring them in a soloistic capacity. There is no greater reward than listening to a performer who is truly invested in our work and who understands us, not only as composers, but also as artists and human beings.  Composers would do well in nourishing these kinds of connections because those players will become the true ambassadors of our music.

This feeling is even more patent when working with professional orchestras. If the conductor is a friend, the connection with the orchestra will be strong; if not, we must work hard to establish a connection throughout the rehearsals. If we achieve this connection, things can turn out to be successful, otherwise it’s likely we’ll go through a very disappointing experience.

Young composers know about the difficulties of having their works performed and the limited amount of time destined to the rehearsal of new works. This is a fact: we must accept it and work with it. After all, we are professional musicians so we should be all able to develop a cordial relationship with our fellow musicians even if we haven’t worked with them before. Rather than looking at it as a limitation we should seize the opportunity to establish new contacts and create new friendships. After all, we will find ourselves in these kinds of situations more often than not.

Interpreters and composers have a symbiotic relationship; we need each other for our mutual survival. Composers provide the music; interpreters provide the sound. Throughout history the line has been blurred by composer-performers and performer-composers, but in both cases the issue of interpretation is eliminated because there are no intermediaries between composers and audiences. This, however, is only possible in limited occasions and certainly not after the composer’s death. So even if us, composers, perform our own works frequently, it is crucial to develop relationships with performers in order to create a tradition around the performance of our music.

Interestingly enough, although we live in a highly literate society, a crack remains when it comes to performance practice (and I certainly hope this will continue to be the case). The scores are printed, but the conventions of how to play a specific composer of a specific time and place are passed orally from generation to generation. And no matter how much effort we put into writing about these practices, the fact remains that the most effective way to transmit this knowledge is by sharing it directly with the younger generation of musicians. This is how our art remains alive and how pieces that were written 300 years ago keep surprising us. As composers, we can only hope that our scores will be rich enough to survive the test of time, and that interpreters will still find them worth the effort.

About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 40 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at Welcome!
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