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 , ‘I don’t know,’” Summer says from his Northern California home.