By Cristina Schreil
When thinking about composer-performers, past titans likely come to mind: Bach, Mozart, Paganini, Schumann, Hindemith . . . the list continues. Once, the relationship between composing and performing was unquestionably intertwined, pursued in tandem toward developing an artistic vision.
But today, what’s the role of the composer-performer? Five such artists—violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Carolina Heredia, cellist Mark Summer, violist Atar Arad, and double bassist Mark Dresser—address the vital link between both gifts, and how they see today’s composer-performers fitting into the grand tradition set forth by the giants before them.
When violinist Cornelius Dufallo taught master classes while touring with the Ethel Quartet, he told students that they don’t really know a piece if they’re only approaching it as performers. “I’m not saying everybody has the ability to write a piece like a Brahms sonata,” Dufallo recalls, while braving a windy New York City walk home one winter afternoon. “But let’s just take a phrase. You don’t really know that phrase until you really feel that you wrote it yourself.”
Dufallo, a former member of the Flux Quartet, Ne(x)tworks, and Ethel, stresses that in only performing a work, “you may be missing an important aspect of it: the meaning.” While in the Flux Quartet, it was liberating to question composers directly: “Is this what you meant?” or “What if I did it like this?” The interactions led him to his own writing and he’s found that in playing both roles, he can take different angles.
He says there’s a growing pursuit among performers to hone their craft in composition. “All these great artists performed and composed, and for a while, maybe in the mid-20th century, performers and composers went separate ways,” Dufallo says, asserting that until around the time of Fritz Kreisler, it was standard for performers to write at least one piece to graduate. “I’m really happy to see it coming back to what it used to be.”
Amid any greater movements, there’s a personal element: Dufallo states his main drive is to express himself. “In order to do that, one must find one’s personal truths, so naturally that’s where the self-discovery comes in,” Dufallo says. He adds that inspiration to write strikes at unexpected—and telling—moments. His 2009 album Dream Streets was born from walking and thinking in New York late at night, and the works reflect his contemplation and a “strange beauty.”
Dufallo explains that the music he writes changes over time in his mind, prompting him to revise certain elements. And, it’s refreshing to hear others’ performances of his works, and collaborate. “I think it’s really, really fun to play your own music. I love doing that, but there’s no way that I would be satisfied if that was all I was doing, because you get so much from collaboration,” he adds. “It’s like you get more material; you have more to work with if you’ve worked with other people.”
Just months removed from a 30-year career with the Turtle Island Quartet, cellist and composer Mark Summer finds himself embracing a “beginner’s mind.” For one thing, he’s looking at composing more seriously.
“It takes a lot of courage to say, when people ask, ‘What are you composing?’ to [answer], ‘I don’t know,’” Summer says from his Northern California home. He asserts composition should be central to curricula. The advice he offers young people stems directly from his experience: “Study composition in a way that I wish that I had.”
Summer offers that, besides financial advantages, pursuing the two activities maximizes potential inspiration for audience and performer. “I tell students that when Yo-Yo Ma plays a concerto, it sounds like he’s composing every note as he goes,” Summer says. He also cites collaborations between banjo player Béla Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer, and tabla player Zakir Hussain as particularly thrilling. “I feel like I know those musicians much better from knowing those pieces,” Summer says. “That inspires me to keep composing.” He adds that works by former quartet colleague, violinist David Balakrishnan, move him to think bigger.
“It’s not necessary to be a composer when you’re a performer but gosh, it sure makes it so much more interesting for the musician and for the audience.” Summer likens the result to a clearer window into a soul.
With his compositions, it’s a balance. “Some of my spark is just the feeling of riding the wave of creation and kind of being humbled by the fact that it just comes from the ether,” Summer says.
He stresses that composing is incredibly time intensive—a challenge when practice is priority. In writing string-quartet works, Summer adopts a “gun to my head” mentality, feeding off deadlines. His solo cello music comes easier. With Julie-O, Summer never thought of anyone playing it but himself. As it’s grown in popularity, he reflects it’s interesting to witness renditions, with several having substantial alterations. “You wouldn’t think that would bother me that much because I’m an improvising player,” he says. It’s something he wrestles with, as he does admire musicians creating their own interpretations. But one unique performance he praises is by Kevin Olusola, who incorporates beatboxing into his cello performances.
Summer admits he’s modest asserting himself as a composer, even with many works under his belt. “When you put yourself to pen and paper or at the computer, it feels like a tremendous leap . . . . There’s a lot more safety in sitting down and playing a piece by someone else.”
“It’s usually something that affects me emotionally,” composer and violinist Carolina Heredia says of how her works begin. Heredia speaks during a break in the last days of finishing her dissertation piece for string quartet and electronics. She is working with students at the University of Michigan to polish details before the Jack Quartet is scheduled to perform in an early March premiere. The musicians help her check if what she imagined matches how it plays out in reality. “Even though I’m a string player—I feel really comfortable with strings—you lose some detail [on the computer].”
Her focus on logistics soon yields to this emotional drive as she describes the inspiration of the work, titled Ausencias/Ausências/Absences: the last writings of Violeta Parra, Alfonsina Storni, and Ana Cristina Cesar, Latin American poets who committed suicide. This isn’t her first time exploring darker subjects; Virginia, a 2015 vocal work, draws from Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter. Heredia writes in an email that suicide, taboo in her Argentine culture, moved her to create something that intellectually and emotionally provokes audiences. Heredia usually begins composing at the piano or her violin to get the basic ideas or the piece’s harmonic structure. Her musical education was classical, but she immersed herself in the folk music of her native continent, playing in bands and tango quintets. This fusion and her roots vibrate at the heart of many of her works. Lus in Bello for Clarinet and String Quartet was inspired by violent protests in Venezuela in 2014.
“There are so many cool and interesting mixed styles in contemporary music right now. It seems to me that it’s a really good time to look for an authentically unique voice,” Heredia muses. It’s not about finding a certain “contemporary aesthetic” or highlighting extended techniques. “I think if you’re really in connection with yourself, with what you want, with who you are, you’ll find that uniqueness.”
She pinpointed her voice, and tapped into her drive to create empathy through art, while working in male-dominated environments. The situation is shifting, but at a slow pace, she says. When she arrived at University of Michigan, she was the only woman amid 20 males. But this fuels her advice for other women: “Once you’re sure, you’re confident about a thought or an idea that you have, don’t let it be turned down by the first opinion that you hear.”
For violist and composer Atar Arad, his musical language and compositions—which include a solo sonata for viola, a string quartet, and other works for strings—spring from hours of daily contact with his Nicoló Amati viola.
“I used to enjoy improvising on my viola as a warm-up routine,” he explains. The “lightbulb moment” that led to his start as a composer “happened one day when I realized that somewhere amid my improvisations there is a personal language, a desire to tell my personal musical story, a number of new technical ideas for the viola, and a great passion for my instrument. I also had a pencil and paper and no excuse not to sit down and write.” He began his Sonata for Viola Solo, published in 1992.
Arad adds that being a composer-performer has unique challenges. “The danger in performing my own music is to think that I totally own and know everything about it,” he muses. “Such thinking may eliminate searching, wondering, risk-taking, and spontaneity . . . My goal, therefore, is to try and write the music all over again while playing it.”
He considers his four performances of his Viola Concerto among his career highlights and vital to his raison d’etre. But he often prefers other performers’ interpretations of his music.
A notable example is when cellist Gary Hoffman performed Arad’s Epitaph for cello and string orchestra; later, Arad performed and recorded an arrangement of the piece for viola and upon listening, concluded that Hoffman “was able to keep his own great musical persona in the equation” while honoring Arad’s intentions as composer.
Mirroring advice he gave to his daughter Galia, a singer and songwriter, he does not wait for inspiration, but “sets himself to work.” Besides hours playing, reading poetry has inspired him. Sounds plucked from his childhood in Israel, where Central and Eastern European immigrants influenced the musical landscape, also infuse his musical vocabulary. While writing his Tikvah for Viola Solo, commissioned by the Munich International Competition in 2008, Arad had in mind the massacre at the 1972 Olympics, and thus an unintended “dark mood dominated every step” in composing. He later recognized his piece’s similarities to the Israeli national anthem, leading to the name, “Tikvah.”
Arad advises that for rising composer-performers, intimidation shouldn’t be part of the equation. “Chopin, Paganini, or Rachmaninov should be father figures for anyone contemplating [a career as] a performer-composer—not sources of pressure.”
“In jazz, there’s a tradition of composer-performers. I just thought it was a normal thing that if you were a performer, you would write your own music,” bassist and composer Mark Dresser says from San Diego, where he’s taught music at the University of California–San Diego since 2004. “I kind of grew up believing that that’s what you were supposed to do . . . develop your own sound, develop your own music. That just became a thing that I had a need to do—let’s put it that way.”
Dresser, who describes his career as alternating between periods of focus on solo performance and ensemble collaboration, says he’s driven to explore the sonic possibilities of the bass though unconventional amplifications and extended technique—the latter of which he’s written about extensively. He came to love the world of extended techniques and gravitated toward others with a “like sound,” he says.
“The solo world is kind of a laboratory for me,” Dresser says, explaining that here, he often develops ideas, and finds a home for them in an ensemble work. His solo works include the 2010 CD, DVD, and booklet GUTS: Bass Explorations, Investigations, and Explanations, which present several aspects of solo-bass performance.
Dresser began studying bass at age ten. Later, he moved to New York City, where he lived, worked, and composed for many years. He says that since 2007, he’s focused on composing for the telematic medium, which links live performances in multiple locations, all connected through high-speed internet.
“Learning how to compose for ensembles at distances has been really interesting and engaging. The audio delay when you play with someone at 6,000 miles away is real. It can be a half a second, and it requires compositional strategies. I seek to create the illusion of synchrony, as well as explore what can be creatively done with the delay. It is an acoustic, compositional, and visual challenge, but because of the high fidelity of sound and visual image, it’s surprisingly intimate,” Dresser says.
He adds he’s always seen the composer-performer tradition as something exploratory.
“You never want to repeat yourself; you want to find something new. As an improviser, I always wanted to surprise myself. Those moments when you discover something new are the most gratifying—when you [think], ‘Oh, that was cool,’ or ‘Oh, that’s an interesting mistake,’” he reflects, chuckling. “That’s always kind of what spurred me on.”
He adds that “99 percent” of the music he composes, he performs, stressing that
he writes for the jazz community of composer-performers and improvisers. The process moves him to want to make his work “better and better.”
“I’m just trying to realize myself in sound,” he says.