Composing for Non-Composers


The Secrets of the Staff Paper

Nicolas Namoradze, a third-year pianist, performs a piece he wrote for the Composing for Non-Composers class, which is taught by Philip Lasser.

 (Photo by Doug Bierend)

At the end of each semester, Philip Lasser’s Composition for Non-Majors class puts on a concert called Double Vision. The title refers to the double passion of student performers who compose; because of this unique duality, these students bring a different set of expectations to their experiences as musicians. This semester’s concert takes place on April 16, and in advance of it, The Journal asked the students to comment on the experience of taking the class. The students are second-year pianist T.J. Tario; third-years Taylor Peterson (French horn); Nicolas Namoradze, Leann Osterkamp, and Leo Wexler-Mann (piano); Han Shi (violin); and Bryony Gibson-Cornish (viola); and fourth-year pianists Mikhail Kaykov, Alexander Malikov, and Jiayan Sun. Check out more their thoughts and works in the exclusive Journal video that appears below.


What insights into performing have you gained from composing?
Taylor Peterson: I’ve learned the importance of musical choices that composers make and to look at a piece and ask why. Why does this line sound so great with another one? Or why is this detail in this measure? Now that I know what details to look for, I can apply that knowledge to my musical interpretation.
Nicolas Namoradze: One of the first things we learn as performers is that a musical score is an inadequate representation of the composer’s intentions; this understanding was reinforced when I was in the composer’s shoes, trying to notate and communicate my own musical conception on paper.
Leann Osterkamp: It’s easy to forget that the masterpieces we all love, practice, and perform were put onto paper by a human hand. When you begin to see the reasoning behind notation, you also begin to be more deeply connected with the mind that created it.

Mikhail Kaykov: In many great compositions, especially those written by composer-pianists—Beethoven, Chopin, Alkan, Liszt, Scriabin, and others—the texture is so carefully planned that all of the inner voices can be heard clearly if the performer is aware of them. You don’t need to exaggerate or look for artificial inner voices.
Bryony Gibson-Cornish: It’s so important to have been on both sides so that we have respect for the process of each one.
Han Shi: As performers, we sometimes put works on a pedestal. Through learning about and experiencing composing ourselves, we’re able to know what a highly intimate and personal process writing a piece of music is—even more so than performing.
Jiayan Sun: When the performer realizes the incredible amount of effort it takes to compose, he or she will understand music and the composers much better and deeper. In other words, the performers will have a new understanding of their role since they are better connected to the composers psychologically.
Leo Wexler-Mann: It’s gotten me to go from thinking something is pretty or saying that’s a nice passage to really wanting to understand why I like it so much. Instead of just playing through something, I’ll be wondering, “How in the world did this composer come up with this?”

How does composing affect you as a performer?
Alexander Malikov: It’s made me pay more attention to sonority, among other things, that I wouldn’t otherwise as a performer.
Kaykov: Putting something of your own on paper really gives you a greater respect for all of the meticulous markings that we sometimes disregard for the sake of originality. 
Osterkamp: As a performer, you begin to have a different experience in interpreting music. Your judgments and opinions come not only from an auditory, visceral, and sensory experiences of the music, but also from a more intellectual and creative mindset.
Gibson-Cornish: Instead of taking the notes on the page for granted, I’ll ask myself, “How did the composer come to decide that these notes were the right ones?” In asking myself that, I can play those notes with conviction and find an emotional reason behind the performance directions.
T.J. Tario: It gives more of a meaning to what we as performers do, which makes bringing our own interpretation to a masterpiece easier.

How does performing affect you as a composer?
Wexler-Mann: As a performer, you give more consideration to how something will feel when it’s performed. Will people be able to cue each other? Is the timing too bizarre? It has to feel right from a performance perspective before it should be played. Plus, I want to write things that would be fun to play. 
Gibson-Cornish: Sometimes practical performance experience can be a hindrance because it’s easy to write something that will be simple to play instead of something that might need some practice! 
Kaykov: So far, I’ve only composed piano pieces—it’s wonderful to experiment with various textures and spacings of chords. Also, I can play my own works the way I think they should be played.
Shi: I’m in different mindsets when I’m performing and when I’m composing. While composing is all about the mind, there’s a physical aspect of performing that affects the effectiveness of the piece. It’s not just whether or not the music is possible to play, it’s also about the pacing, the breath, and whether it’s written in a way that would be natural and convincing while being performed. 
Tario: As a performer, I feel like it’s gotten easier to share my point of view with listeners. 
Osterkamp: Composing is an extension of performing in that you are learning how to put the voice you have on stage onto paper.
Namoradze: I confess I’m only really interested in writing for my instrument. I’ve been captivated by some of the contemporary piano music I’ve been playing, and this music inspires me to further explore the possibilities of the instrument.

Has anything surprised you about this experience?
Shi: How a tiny detail can change the whole picture.
Tario: Putting my innermost feelings to paper and hearing them come to life is just another outlet for expressing myself and exploring my imagination through music.
Wexler-Mann: I’ve started to consider things like, I wonder where this composer got stuck? Did he have a hard time writing this part? Does this passage feel more strained than the previous one? It really makes performing more entertaining once you learn what goes into the composition of the piece you’re playing.
Namoradze: I was occasionally taken by surprise by the things I came up with.
Osterkamp: It surprised me that the music I write is almost nothing like the majority of music that I perform, though I have no real explanation for that. As I began to unleash this different aspect of my musical character, I felt as though it was some subconscious desire finally exposing itself. It’s almost as though my ears were craving a genre of music I seldom perform. Composing gave my ears the freedom they needed to guide me in new directions.

Anything else?
Gibson-Cornish: Composing is something that every performer should do at some point—and vice-versa.
Wexler-Mann: It’s so exciting to be part of something new in a music world that is so heavily dominated by the past. Composing your own music is a wonderful way to start getting connected to that world.
Sun: Professor Lasser always inspired us to listen and be guided by our instincts instead of false intellectualization.
Malikov: It’s incredibly different playing one’s own piece—and it also makes me realize a piece of music is never finished.
Peterson: You could have all the time in the world and there still wouldn’t be enough time to compose.

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