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Composer/Performer or Performer/Composer?

I have, probably since the age of 14 or so, identified myself as a composer. I played piano (and also guitar and flute rather unsuccessfully), and have variously performed as a classical pianist, accompanist, duo partner, cocktail pianist, jazz pianist, and even a keyboardist in a rock band, yet because I studied composition at music college, and I now lecture in composition, I never really identified as being a performer.
There is a long history, of course, of composers who perform and performers who compose, from the virtuosic talents of Paganini and Chopin, to experimental musicians Cornelius Cardew, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley. The title track of Riley’s album A Rainbow in Curved Air was performed entirely by the composer.

Perhaps it was because I studied composition at a conservatoire, where the performers were of such an intimidatingly high standard, that I never dared call myself a pianist. However, during my PhD, I shared a house with a very good piano player (Gary O’Shea) who helped improve my technique, and consequently my confidence grew. Gradually, I found myself performing more frequently, and rather than a being a hindrance my experience (as a composer, as a jazz musician) helped me interpret contemporary scores and improvise when necessary.
So, when composer Jacob Thompson-Bell asked me to perform and record a new set of piano studies he had written, I was happy to oblige. Originally the plan was for, perhaps, a single concert but (as is often the case with new music projects) things have spiralled gloriously out of control, and I am now embarking on a five-date tour, supported by Sound and Music and funded by Arts Council England. In addition to Jacob’s studies, we have commissioned graphic scores by Jacob, me, Daniel Kidane and Michael Betteridge which have then been sliced, spliced, and interwoven into a beautiful book by Claudia Molitor – this will serve as a score I use for improvisation, programme notes for the audience, and a piece of art that can be purchased separately. Each date of the tour will be unique; a different venue, a different piano, a different audience, and thus different interpretations of the pieces.
I am now (in a slightly panicky state) practising as hard as I can; scales, finger exercises, jazz improvisation, free improvisation, anything that I think can help me perform as well as I can.
Aside from trying to persuade you to come to one of the concerts(!) this blog post is about performing what you compose. It is so important for those that are new to composing to hear their music as often as possible in public concerts, to assess what works and what does not. Find local amateur groups, nationwide organisations (like COMA), or any other ensemble you can find, and ask them to play your music – they might say yes! Or, alternatively, find a venue and perform your music yourself. It can be an exhilarating experience, and you will learn so much more about your compositions than if they remained merely as files on your PC.
ONE: Tour dates
01 September, IABF, Manchester
02 September, Lotherton Hall, West Yorks
08 September, Iklectik, London
09 September, The Rose Hill, Brighton
15 September, Seven Arts, Leeds

Posted by author: Ben Gaunt
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One thought on “Composer/Performer or Performer/Composer?

  • Ben, very interesting reading indeed and many thanks for sharing.
    This resonated so much with me. I have shared almost the same experience: Composer, studied piano for my degree, MA in Orchestration, etc… However, my files do NOT stay stored in a PC, they are stored in a MAC. Big difference!
    I would love to see your performance. However, I am in Northern Ireland and I am unsure I would be able to make it to England with such short notice. I will investigate your webpage further

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