Dr. Craig W. Combs
The world of musical performance is a complicated and subjective one.
It is often impacted by the emotional whims and philosophical beliefs
of performers, directors and composers. Feelings of ownership and authorship
extend beyond the boundaries of legal issues like copyright and move into
the realm of perspective and intuition. There is little debate over who
actually authors or owns a specific musical piece. The composer is always
known as the creator of the music. The debate, instead, occurs over whether
a composer can author an interpretation. In the performance of the music,
the musician becomes a powerful influence affecting issues that are often
more important than legal ownership.
In 1987, composer David Conti asked me to perform his new work for solo
piano, Piano Fantasy, at the 20th-Century Music Festival at Cornell
University. Unfortunately, the composer lived in California and I was
in New York City. There were no opportunities for musical consultations,
only discussions via the phone. Flattered by such a vote of confidence
and trust, I poured over the score, memorized the piece and searched my
soul for deeper meanings in the musical text. A few days before the performance,
the nervous composer called me and requested that I play the composition
for him over the phone. As strange and manipulative as the request sounded,
I consented in the spirit of cooperation. After all, how often do we as
performers get to talk to the composer about their music? I set the phone
in place to capture the sound and began in great earnest my first rendering
of the piece in its entirety. When finished, I picked up the phone to
find a completely exasperated composer who had been trying to get my attention
for the last twelve minutes. After hearing only 16 bars, he knew that
my interpretation was completely different from what he had intended.
My technical training and interpretive experience had led me down a lyrical
path, whereas his vision of the piece was more percussive. I had chosen
to emphasize the beautiful, singing tone that the piano is capable of
producing versus the powerful and colorful percussive tone. Part of the
fun of playing the piano is deciding how you will mix and match these
primary sound resources and use the variations in between. The composerís
markings, however, had implied a rhythmic undercurrent that could be easily
achieved by utilizing the percussive nature of the piano a bit more than
I had chosen. We were both upset, to say the least, but for very different
The practical issue at hand was articulation. For example, there are
many different staccato sounds possible on the piano, but there is only
one truly universal mark that represents staccato. The number of symbols
available to composers is literally infinite, since they can create their
own symbols if traditional ones donít suffice. For example, a composer
can alter the volume or duration of a staccato sound by using specific
marks in the musical score. Imagine trying to interpret a piece of music
in which the composer uses dozens of the available symbol possibilities.
With the interpretive choices being almost infinite, the power of the
performer to affect the original intention of the composition is greatly
Within the short time left before the performance of Piano Fantasy,
I worked hard to move my understanding of the piece toward the composerís
vision. Ultimately, I settled for a compromise between the two interpretations.
Although I tried my best, I could not accurately reproduce or envision
his understanding of what he had written.
On the day that I performed Piano Fantasy, the audience loved
my performance and (beyond their knowledge) my interpretation. David was
won over by the response of the audience and, to my amazement, he invited
me to perform the piece again at a larger venue. Such is the power of
the performer, and his or her vision!
In this situation, who is the author of a composition? Without doubt,
it is the composer. Who is the author of the interpretation? I believe
it is the performer. However, not all conclusions are quite so clear.
In standard works of solo, chamber, orchestral and large choral ensemble
works, the score is sacrosanct and authorship is rarely in question. In
fact, music aficionados interested in every type of music make a game
of trying to catch performers in misreadings of a score or in unusual
interpretations. But what if the composition itself is changed? What then
In 1924, the world heard for the first time the new American masterpiece,
Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin. The birth of this piece is
a well known story. On January 4, 1924, Gershwin read a news report in
the New York Tribune that he was composing a new composition for the famous
Paul Whiteman Band to be performed on February 12, only five weeks later!
At an earlier date, Gershwin had agreed to write the piece but a completion
date hadnít been determined. The newspaper article compelled Gershwin
to begin writing and three weeks later Rhapsody in Blue was finished.
What is less well known is that Ferde Grofe, orchestrator for the Whiteman
Band, authored the Rhapsodyís orchestration. Gershwin had included
very light suggestions for orchestration, which Grofe largely ignored.
So it was Grofe who gave Rhapsody in Blue its characteristic instrumental
sound, a unique mix of classical and jazz music. Grofe went so far as
to revise and, some would say, rewrite Gershwinís chordal spacing, part-leading,
octave placement and even rhythms! In the book Gershwin, His Life and
Music, biographer Charles Schwarz says Grofe ". . . had the responsibility
for making the Rhapsody as effective as possible in its orchestral
dressings. His revisions are more than justified on professional grounds."
The question then begs to be asked: Does Grofe deserve some credit for
the authorship of Rhapsody in Blue?
Another interpretive issue at hand in the Rhapsody concerns the
opening clarinet glissando, the wailing sound that sets the mood for the
entire piece and has become so identified with the Rhapsody that
many listeners can identify it just by hearing that sound. Originally,
Gershwin clearly wrote a simple scale for the clarinet. But one night
during rehearsals, Ross Gorman, clarinetist for the Whiteman Band, turned
the scale into a "wailing" glissando as a joke on Gershwin.
Gershwin loved the sound and instructed Gorman to perform it that way
on opening night! That opening sound, so "characteristically"
Gershwin, was in fact the invention of a performer.
So what exactly does a composer own? Outside of copyright, he or she
owns the creation, the concept, and even the details that are dictated
by notation. But what happens to interpretive ownership when the composer
is anonymous? Who receives credit for folk music that has been preserved
only through oral tradition, like an Indian Raga? The recent surge of
interest in "World Music," defined as music derived from cultures
outside of European influence, presents some interesting challenges in
the realm of interpretive authorship.
In the Spring of 1999, I introduced my elementary school choir to a beautifully
realized African folk tune titled Ghana Alleluia, arranged by Kathy
Armstrong and published by Boosey and Hawkes. Armstrong arranged the tune
into a traditional alternating two-part form called a "Call and Response."
In this case, the "Call" is sung by a soloist and repeated with
an optional choral duet. The "Response" is a traditional Western
three-part harmony for three choral sections. The whole piece is ideally
accompanied by two African percussion instruments called a donno
(drum) and a ferikyiwa (bell) and visually reinforced by a traditional
African dance. Armstrong indicates in her performance instructions that
a certain amount of improvisation and rearrangement is expected. She writes,
"Please use the harmonies provided as a guide only. Feel free to
While teaching the Ghana Alleluia to my choir of 8-10 year old
children, it quickly became clear that I would need to rearrange the piece.
My choir was not capable of clear two-part singing (much less three-parts)
nor did we possess the appropriate African instruments. Still, I believed
it was important to expose my students to this historic music. I rearranged
the composition into what is called a "unison octavo," where
the call was sung by a small group of children and the response by the
full 150 member choir, both sung in unison. We were accompanied by a bongo
drum and a few Spanish maracas. Instead of using Armstrongís dance movements,
we opted for a dance that was created by a teacher in our school who had
been taking instruction in original African dance. The performance was
a roaring success.
The question that remains is not whether my interpretation has an inherent
authorship, but, rather, is the arrangerís work really an authorship at
all? No one would ever challenge Kathy Armstrongís copyright. They could
argue, though, the affect the performer and/or conductor has on the success
of an original tune. Is it not the conductorís skill in bringing the original
spirit to the music that ultimately affects the success or failure of
the composition, regardless of the arranger? I am hopeful that Armstrong,
whom I have not met, would support the successful rendering of this Ghanaian
melody with or without her arrangement. After all, our common goal, whether
as a performer, composer, conductor, arranger or teacher, is to bring
music to people.
There is no doubt in the minds of historians, musicians and composers
as to the ownership of Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, Piano
Fantasy by David Conti, or any other composition for that matter.
These are copyright issues and can be easily confirmed. Authorship is
less absolute but still strongly tied to legal ground. I rather doubt
that anyone would question the authorship or ownership of the Rhapsody
on the grounds of Gormanís wailing clarinet. However, the issue of interpretation
remains open to philosophical and emotional evaluation. Ultimately, the
answers are as much political as musical. Composers, be advised: Treat
issues of interpretation delicately. For in the end, the performer "owns"
the interpretation and ultimately the power of persuasion that convinces
the audience. Such is the power of the performer!
Dr. Craig W. Combs is a musician in New York City who is presently
specializing in the performance and composition of new works for solo
piano and/or collaborative works that include piano. He also conducts
childrenís choirs and produces professional development workshops for
NYFAís New York City Choral Music Initiative.