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Specialized Compositions Tailor Fit for Their Performers

Updated: Oct 15

In this piece, we are going to look at a history of collaborations between composers and musicians, and how learning from a specific musician can lead to highly-specialized compositions.

Duncan Holzhall (above) offers historical insight that backs the mission of the Twisted Spruce Music Foundation.


"In Collaborating and Learning from Specific Musicians, the Composer Can Create a Highly-Specialized Work Oriented around the Talents and Artistry of Said Musicians."

Musicians owe a major debt of gratitude to composers, for without their work, musicians would have nothing to perform. Even for musicians who depend on improvisatory gestures in their music, a framework is still required, which requires the services of a composer. Despite a musician's reliance on the composer, these craftsmen are not all-knowing beings. Rather, they are normal people looking to learn and improve upon their art. And who better to learn from than the musicians they write for, the experts in performing their instruments? In this piece, we are going to look at a history of collaborations between composers and musicians, and how learning from a specific musician can lead to highly-specialized compositions.

While there exists a romanticized folk idea of the compositional process, the composer sitting at a keyboard for months on end in complete solitude, toiling day and night in the act of creation, the true process involves far more collaboration. One instance of this collaborative effort is seen in Aaron Copland's process for composing his Third Symphony. Throughout the rehearsal process, the work underwent multiple revisions to address issues ranging from unified bowings in the string section to so far as cutting 12 bars from a performance (as done by Leonard Bernstein). As the piece continued to evolve, Copland took suggestions from the musicians he worked with in order to evoke the strongest performance of his vision.

 In collaborating and learning from specific musicians, the composer can create a highly-specialized work oriented around the talents and artistry of said musicians. Whether intentional or not, a fair number of collaborative compositions become showpieces that take on the character of the artist performing them. A prominent historical example of this is derived from Die Zauberflöte, the final work by W.A. Mozart. No stranger to composing for the voice by this point in his career, Mozart's compositional style took a stylized approach for this opera. Knowing that his sister-in-law Josepha Hofer would be performing the role of the Queen of the Night in the premiere run, Mozart took the liberty of tailoring the music the Queen sings to suit Hofer's voice specifically. A dominant coloratura soprano of the time, the Queen of the Night became Hofer's signature role for over a decade. After her passing, the role has endured as an extravagant demonstration of stratospheric singing that challenges even the most seasoned performers to this day.


There are examples of composers creating works that are so specialized that they are unable to be replicated beyond the scope of the original musicians. A unique collaborative ensemble called GRAFT exhibits this approach to composition. With no written documentation or specific instructions, the ensemble follows a non-hierarchical mode of interaction which combines distinct sonic palettes into a hybrid acoustic-electronic texture. The compositions that this ensemble plays could not possibly be executed in the same way, for the musicians themselves would alter the context and environment of the work.


Lean more about Duncan Holzhall at eclecticmixes.wordpress.com. If you are interested in hiring his freelance writing services, please contact him at holzhall.duncan(at)gmail.com.

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