Day Three: The Run-Up

Day Three: The Run-Up

It’s become a joke among us composers here in Minnesota. In our face-time meetings with members of the orchestra, when we get to the part when it’s time to talk about individual pieces, it happens without fail: “Now first, where’s Sean? Who wrote surface tension?” Poor Manuel Laureano and Doug Wright, principal trumpet and trombone, were confused when we all burst out laughing. It’s true, my piece is hard—and I’m taking some well-deserved heat for it.

Brian Mount and Kevin Watkins, the young, cherubic percussionists (on Saturday night I might have wondered if Sum 41 found tuxes and wandered on stage) are deadly serious about what they (and we) do. “Oh, I just wanted the effect,” we might offer, lamely excusing ourselves for any number of things this morning in a rehearsal room full of large percussion instruments. “Well, I’ve been practicing this for three weeks, so you’re gonna get what you wrote. I hope that’s the effect you wanted,” was shot right back, complete with demonstration. These guys have been sweating bullets, and I, for one, am more than grateful. But there is also a sense of appreciation for our efforts, and a shared responsibility in this process. As Manuel so eloquently put it, “We realize that what you have to do is push the boundaries of the orchestra. It happened in 1913, and it’s happening now. As players, we don’t know what will happen in the future, but we like to think that by doing things like this Institute we might be a part of it.”

My stomach churns when I think about tomorrow. The Readings start in the morning, and between the five of us scheduled, we’ll be at it all day. Part of the development component of the Institute includes a focus on publicly introducing ourselves and our work, already informally with board members, orchestra members, and fellow participants and program auditors. But tomorrow we do it for reals, yo. With the suits and the patrons, speaking from the tier drop (à la Eva Perón?), we’ve got 5-7 minutes to make some new friends. But that’s nothing compared to the allotted (it’s officially in the book: 1:35-1:37 p.m. Central Standard Time) 2 minutes we get to chit-chat with the orchestra, where we’d BETTER make new friends. As I’ve found with classroom teaching, there’s talking and there’s speaking, and I am starting to like both. But it’s one thing at 9 a.m. on a Monday with sleepy students and coffee in hand, talking tough about prog rock and whatever happened to Peter Frampton. Telling a story about the piece that is your sickest, most bloated, most beautiful child to well-wishing strangers 10 minutes before it will get the best treatment of its life is another thing, without question.

My piece is hard. It’s thick, it’s gritty, it’s loud, it’s got 22,000 notes (gotta love that note counter in Finale!), and it’s merciless with everyone by design. It’s also three years old and a piece in which I can find much fault—my first orchestral foray, and time spent revising has far eclipsed time creating. But it’s also the piece I’ve learned the most from—although try as I have, so many of its flaws are built into its strengths and thus un-purgable. And it’s one of those pieces, and we all have them, that you just write. Something clicked somewhere between the giant, convoluted pre-planning sketches and the 60-page monster it grew to be before I had a chance to censor myself into writing something “attractive”. I lived, by several strokes of luck, on the 28th floor in a practically empty (I went days without seeing anyone) Juilliard dorm over the summer as I wrote, cooped away while working my pencil to the nubbin and my noodle to the spoon to complete it. Now looking back, I can see the oppressive relentlessness of a distant city (far below) spilling over the surface of this piece, with a distinct, austere loneliness at its core. I’m not sure I could write this piece now, and so my feelings about having it played here at the Institute are mixed. I’m not that composer any more—is it still my piece?

My worst fear was that the players would see it and say, “Crunck this! I’m goin’ golfing.” As I can see now, that just hasn’t happened. They’ve done their homework and are ready to engage. So now my new worst fear is: Is it, and am I, worth all this?

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