What the composer intended

I want to tell you about a really powerful experience I had yesterday. I won’t be making an argument of any kind. I am going to be relying on a series of analogies that came to me all in the same moment. I will be trying here to separate them and share them at the same time.

Everyone who composes music has some notion of how it ought to sound. The conventions of scoring [1] give us not only pitches and rhythms, but also tempoes and even moods. You write them all down on the paper and hope good musicians will see them and know what to do with them.

I am thinking of religious texts the same way. Any kind of instruction, really. If you have ever written instructions that are, in your view, pellucidly clear, only to have them muddied by people who want to misunderstand them, then youSo that's the first 10. who's up for the next 603? know the experience. So here we have Moses anticipating the 613 mitzvot by starting off with a very general 10. Good luck, Moses.

One of the really good things about singing in a choir with gifted musicians is that you sometimes get to sing compositions by one of the members. Some years ago, we had a chance to sing Aaron’s Benediction  composed by Benjamin Kinkley. It’s a really lovely piece, but it was special for us because Ben was singing in the bass section at the time and our choir director asked Ben to teach the piece to us.

A score has all the instructions anyone would want on it, but these are instructions in general. Ben told us how he wanted our choir in particular to sing it. He told us what effect he was hoping for and what we could do individually and as sections to try to produce that effect. He simply ignored some of the instructions on the page either because they didn’t matter for the use he had in mind or because they were there to keep choirs from making a kind of mistake we weren’t likely to make. [2]

So we got instruction from a man who was in a position to be dogmatic about “the composer’s intent” because he was, in fact, the composer. And he was also one of us and also knew the acoustical properties of the space where his work would be performed. That’s a lot more information than you usually get.

Similarly, I have gotten a lot of good instruction about how to live a really good life. I have had some very wise friends and a gifted counselor and have been taught by some amazingly good preachers. And, like everyone else, I have benefitted from reading excellent authors, some theoretical and some “oriented toward practice.” [3]

But yesterday, I got closer. Yesterday we sang Amen of Hope by Brandon Stewart and I sang it standing next to Brandon Stewart. It is the best sense of “the intention of the composer” I have ever had. We had the markings on the music to rely on, like those we get from Handel or Brahms. We had a little bit of instruction about what he would like, what he had in mind, but not very much and most of what we got came in response to questions from our choir director.

composer 3So I had the two indicators of the intention of the composer that I have had before, but this time I had a third. As we practiced it yesterday, for instance, I noticed that he—as a singer, but knowing what he knows about the piece—treated rests of identical length differently. We are considering a measure with four beats, the last of which is half a beat—an eighth rest.

As a general matter, every eighth rest in 4/4 time ought to be treated the same and my first reaction was to elbow Brandon and tell him he was doing it wrong. I managed to stop myself from doing that. I noticed, for instance, that he chopped the first eighth rest in the piece back to nearly nothing. He meant something by doing that, although I didn’t know what it was. But he did it every time in that particular measure, so I followed him and did what he did. In a later measure, he consistently gave the rest more time that he “should have;” again because he had a reason.

What I would really like to do here is skip to the “happily ever after” ending in which, by mimicking the performance of the composer, I was able to see what these different values of the eighth rest contributed to the piece and I became—so long as I was standing right next to him—part of the solution and not part of the problem. [4] In fact, I never did understand why he treated those rests the way he did. Or why he delayed the crescendo at the bottom of page one as long as he did or why he pushed a few phrases as aggressively as he did.

So those things didn’t happen for me, but what did happen is that I got the very practical demonstration of what composer’s intent was and I was led to compare it to my experiences with Benjamin Kinkley and Johannes Brahms.  That’s comparing, if you are following this account, level three with level two with level one.

Here’s what I found. The printed score is good if that is all you have. Instructions about composer 2how to treat the printed score are better if they are available. Best is standing next to someone who is singing it the way it ought to be sung. It amounts to an inversion of authorities. Ordinarily, I sing next to my friend Jim, and we have an active and friendly relationship as colleagues. If I hold the note over into the rest or don’t quite get up to the G# or get confused at where I go after the first ending, Jim feels free to help me get it right and I do the same for him. But in those cases, each of us is relying on the music—on how it is written [5]—and judging our performance by our fidelity to it.

Singing next to Brandon inverts the authorities. If he wants it to sound a certain way and sings so as to make it sound that way, I am not going to elbow him and tell him he is doing it wrong. I am going to emulate him and try to see what effect he had in mind. It is a reflection on the written text based on an intimate—I heard it myself—experience of the performance.

As a Christian, the analogous experience would be “singing”—taking repeated practical actions—next to Jesus. There isn’t any way to do that. [6] There are a few approximations, like paying particular attention to the lives of Christians you admire, but they are very rough approximations. I think what is going to stay with me from the experiences of rehearsal and performance this last week is that if you can experience what the composer does—what he DOES—you are in a much better position to evaluate the relatively cruder information you get when you are told what to do (as Ben Kinkley did)  or when you read what the score says.

If, in other words, you could experience what the Creator is doing, you would have good grounds for taking some liberties with what the preachers say and what the scriptures teach. Intriguing, isn’t it?

[1] Not that kind. I’m thinking of musical scores
[2] And even at his relatively young age, Ben understood that every new instruction you give a choir divides their attention one more time.
[3] Ordinarily, I would just say “practical” there, but the very popular contrast between “theoretical” and “practical” is just too much for me sometimes.
[4] Or, as a chemist friend of mine likes to say, “part of the solution and not part of the precipitate.”
[5] And every now and then, there are typos in the score, especially a sharp or a flat that shouldn’t be there. In those cases, there is an even higher authority called “music theory” which tells us that whatever it says on the page, that was not the composer’s intention.
[6] Given the focus of this essay, you can see why I don’t want to take living by the “recorded words of Jesus” as the ultimate standard (like Brahms) or the reports of the experiences of mystics, or the “schools of practical theology” which set some words of Jesus over against other words of Jesus. None of those is like listening to when the composer breathes or how he stresses the phrase.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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