Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Performance vs. Composition

LAEvaside: Before I begin, note this: this essay is not about which form of expression is better, more difficult, deeper, rarer, more synonymous with cookies, etc. It is about the differences between two main types of art. [/laevaside]


Performance: dancing, playing an instrument, singing, acting, giving a speech, etc.

Composition: writing poetry or prose, painting, choreographing, composing music, designing buildings, etc.


Having recently spent the majority of my time in these past few weeks focusing on vocal and violin performance, with very little attention to writing, I found that my break from composition was very relieving. In this time, I also starting picking out distinct differences between my two separate artistic pursuits. Certainly, they are both fine and full of joy, but the contrast in the sort of joy provided by each is immense; the comparison is akin to that of, say, pickles and pies. Both are pleasurable if they suit you. They are also quite different, and, when choosing to take up one, the other, or neither at any given moment, the choice largely depends on your current, shall we say, appetite.

Although my main line of work is poetry (having done only a smattering of musical arrangements), I am going to use music composition as the primary example of composition in this piece, as the performances of notes is much more involved than the performance of text. I will, however, try to shape my analogies so that they are applicable to all types of composition.


The composer begins without any particular direction; his progress starts with a seed, an idea. A seed requires various elements if it hopes to flourish; likewise, composing a great piece involves different aspects. All technical excellence is no good, for the music lacks a soul. Similarly, an emotional outpouring is useless without structure. It's as simple as water and sunlight.

Even when a composer is at his best, fleshing out a major work is an arduous task. Whether he is working with assonance and alliteration or melodies and harmonies, the composer's joy is generally at a trickle during his work. Occasionally, a particularly clever turn of phrase or transition might cause a temporary surge of contentment, but composition isn't all smiles, and can be quite frustrating. Trashing entire passages of work is, to put it mildly, not pleasurable.

One of the things composition lacks is pressure. There is no audience scrutinizing your every action. It is hermetic work, generally speaking; when striving to improve, having a mentor definitely helps, but if a composer puts together any defining work, it will be his and his alone (with the exception of lyricist/composer partnerships). The intricacies involved in the creation of a piece are not openly accessible, and having more than one person work on a complex composition usually ends in a dissonant manner, as if the two are trying to play the same piece, but in different key signatures.

The completion of a poem, novel, or musical score breaks a dam open on the inside; all the excitement that has been subdued to maintain concentration floods the body, and a real sense of achievement takes rise. Then your little internal salmon run everywhere, and...

Actually, that's a (salmon?) wrap for composition. Onto performance:


The performer has an immediate sense of direction; her map (I'm going to forego typical gender rules and make the performer a female in the interest of novelty and variety, as our composer was a male) gives her a basic idea of the technical and emotional layout of a piece. However, following the composer's instructions is by no means an easy task. And, even, when this has been accomplished, a great performance requires the performer to inject her own personality into her work- in short, a detour.

Like composition, technique and emotion are both necessary for performance. Personality can sometimes push you a bit further in performance, but again, without a mixture of the two main elements, the results will be mediocre at best.

If composers experience enjoyment in a trickle until the finish line, then performers (with the exception of, perhaps, daredevils) experience a continual flow of joy. There's a certain spontaneity in the happiness performance provides. A performer actually has the action going on around them, indulging the senses, instead of merely writing something abstract that has to be brought to life in some way. Performance is immediately and continually gratifying.

The aspect of pressure accompanies the sensory nature of performance. Performance draws crowds, and the nature of performance makes it possible for those present to pick out every error the performer makes. She carries out her duty with the knowledge that, should she mess up, it will likely be noticed and criticized by someone, either by an audience member or, even worse, by a fellow performer, for, unlike composition, performance is usually cooperative.

There's still a surge of excitement at the end of a musical performance, but it's not quite the same as the satisfaction of finishing a composition. Where the latter is a feeling of deep contentment, the former is more of a joyful giddiness. Both are fantastic, in their own way.


As men and women are very little without each other (ah, the female performer *did* come in handy!), composers and performers need each other to give rise to the great art of this world, which tingles the body and soul as nothing else on this earth can. And then, there is the audience- what good is art without an audience? Naught, and, if I may- what good are men and women without children? In every audience, there is a fledgling artist eager to flee the crowd for another place, whether it be the writing desk or the limelit stage.



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