Music is typically considered to be a creative field. Traditionally, musicians have been placed into the category of creative types which also houses visual artists, dancers, and other members of the visual and/or performing arts communities. For myself, the act of creation did, at first, lay the foundation for my interest in music-making. As a toddler, my Mother tells me I would spend long stretches of time at the keyboard; delighted by my discovery of the correlation between the pressing of the keys and the resulting sound waves, as most children discover when seated at the piano bench. But what really captivated and held my interest was composition. Stringing a few notes along together to create a melody was easy. As I grew older, harmonizing those melodies with additional strings of notes became fascinating. Making something out of nothing. Writing, composing, creating.
As an adult, now, composer is not my job title. Though I do write and arrange, the vast majority of my work centers on performance. Instead of stringing notes together, I voice the passages strung together by other musicians. Instead of harmonizing melodies, I study my scores to bring out the intricate harmonies in my performances of other composers' works. Am I creating a new work? No, I'm not. So... what am I creating?
A close friend startled me a few weeks ago by admitting that he did not think of instrumental performers as artists. At first, I was offended by this notion. After so many countless hours of my life spent carefully and critically constructing performances and refining techniques, how could my work not be considered art? After some time in thought, I can see the point he was trying to make. Having good technique does not make me an artist. It makes me, by definition, a technician! Having beautiful sound and pulling long, spinning, singing tones from my violin does not make me an artist. It makes me a violinist! The sounds I am making aren't new. The nuances in my performances, no matter how personal or unique they may seem to me or to my audience, exist solely still within the parameters given to me by the composer of whichever work I am performing. Am I Michelangelo, brush in hand, body hoisted to the roof of the Sistine Chapel? Or am I a bored kid in the 90's painting-by-numbers? Are my performances more than just a skilled reproduction of someone else's masterpiece?
Let me be sure to say that there's nothing wrong with a good reproduction. Good art reproduced can still be good art, regardless of whether or not what you are looking at is the "real thing." For instance, though I have not seen the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel myself and may never in my lifetime get the chance, I still know what it looks like, and can see in great detail the beauty and skilled craftsmanship of Michelangelo's work without ever laying eyes on the ceiling itself. How? Because those images have been reproduced, copied, photographed, and made available to me.
Performance of musical art differs from that kind of visual art in that it is alive and changing, because the subject of the art falls into the unique hands of the performers which choose to perform those works. If Hilary Hahn, Jascha Heifetz, and Gil Shaham each performs J. S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, will each performance be the same? No, of course not. But is it still Bach? Yes. However, if I am to take to a canvas and do my best to copy Michelangelo, will it be considered the work of Michelangelo? Definitely not.
So what does it take for the performance of art to be considered art in itself? Can art exist in the uniqueness of personality, the dazzle of technical prowess, and the musical understanding and support the performer lends to the vision of the composing artist? Or is it still a reproduction, no matter how skilled? I don't think I have an answer yet.