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Performer/Co-Composer: A self-analysis of performer-contributed compositional choices in microcosm and macrocosm as relevant to the interpretation of four solo piano works of Stuart Saunders Smith


In a number of Stuart Saunders Smith’s pieces, he calls upon the performer to compose dynamics, articulations, and phrasing atop the rhythms and pitches he provides. In my preparation of four of these pieces, namely Family Portraits: Self (in 14 Stations), Thicket, Palm Sunday, and Among Us, I chose to fashion my compositional process around placing myself in the role of a listener.

This involved the creation of a sequence of self-recordings. Beginning with recordings of the pieces devoid of musical nuance, I would listen back, take notes on what my ear desired in terms of dynamics, phrasing, and articulation, put those thoughts into practice, and record the pieces again. I repeated this process until I achieved interpretations of Smith’s works that I was satisfied with as a listener.

Given the numerous compositional possibilities Smith allows for in these circumstances, I was curious as to why my ear made the decisions that led to these finalized recordings of the four pieces. The process I employed seemed highly intuitive, but I found it difficult to discuss the nuances of my choices from an analytical perspective. This dissertation is an attempt to self-analyze my compositional process in these works. Through study of the final recordings against the scores, I hypothesize about the inherent facets of Smith’s music that influenced my compositional decisions.

These discussions orbit a number of larger thematic considerations. Firstly, I write about nuanced compositional decisions influenced by my ear’s desire for main voice or hauptstimme, and the impact that the density of Smith’s counterpoint, implied pitch and rhythmic hierarchy, and pianistic choreography have on the sounding results of the pieces at a microcosmic level. Secondly, I discuss macrocosmic compositional concerns regarding resemblances to classical musical forms, Smith’s calling upon prolonged use of the sustain pedal, the implications of repetition, and the evocation of changing tempo when such shifts are aurally difficult to discern. Finally, the dissertation concludes with theorizing on the relationship of one’s own education and performance background to the compositional process and results, relating Smith’s pieces to mirrors that reflect individual musical values back onto the performer.

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