The ACO Underwood Readings’ Blog: A Composer’s Anticipation

The ACO Underwood Readings’ Blog: A Composer’s Anticipation

Tamar Muskal
Photo by Tore Claesson

[Ed. note: The American Composers Orchestra’s annual Underwood readings will be taking place this coming Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22, 2010. Every year it is a fascinating couple of days, so this year we thought it would be exciting to get an insider look at the process from the perspectives of one of the featured composers (Tamar Muskal), one of the musicians in the orchestra (French hornist Danielle Kuhlmann), and one of the participating conductors (José Serebrier).

Tamar Muskal, a 2009 Guggenheim Foundation fellow, was recently commissioned by eighth blackbird, cellist Maya Beiser, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. Tamar has already had quite a bit of experience writing for orchestra, but as she points out below, there’s still always stuff to worry about. (For conductor José Serebrier’s first musings, visit here.)—FJO]

It is Monday, May 17. In just five days, my piece Water Colors will be read by the American Composers Orchestra, as part of their 19th Annual Underwood Readings. Growing up in Israel, a small country with perhaps ten professional orchestras, I saw arts funding shrink from year to year, and orchestral composers there have few opportunities. I feel so happy and lucky to be now living in the U.S., and to be having this incredible opportunity provided by the American Composers Orchestra.

But as the reading gets closer, new worries have been flooding my brain: What if I forgot to transpose the horns parts? What if I wrote the vibraphone part in its sounding pitch rather than its written pitch? What if I didn’t use the right clef for the violas and their part has millions of ledger lines? I feel almost as if I have a multiple personality disorder! One personality is constantly providing new worries while the other provides immediate answers. For some reason, with every orchestral piece that I write, I always have this “transposition fear” when it comes to the horns. It has always been okay before, and most likely it will be this time as well. And what about that vibraphone issue? Well, the vibraphone is not a transposing instrument, so I have nothing to fear after all… And this is the way I calm myself down until the next worry pops up.

My piece has three main sections with a pretty clear structure: ORDER – CHAOS – ORDER, and then a big final climax. Because the rehearsal time will be so brief, I have no expectations that every little detail will be brought out, but I do hope those three sections will be clear, each with their own characteristics, so I can get a sense about whether I succeeded in what I was aiming for. I have been hoping that the orchestra will give life to my music, and I will soon find out whether my piece will turn out exactly the way I’ve imagined it.

In my previous orchestral music, I’ve put lots of time and attention in the interesting little details, giving less attention to the overall form and to the development between the sections. I still care deeply about those details, but I am increasingly interested in balancing the power of the micro with the macro. Right now, I am very aware of my piece’s little details, but I’m still wondering about the “big picture.” I would like to get a sense of whether my piece works as a whole or not. Soon I will find out!

Even though this is not my first orchestral piece, it is the first time that I will participate in an orchestral reading. I was just listening to my six colleagues’ music on the internet—their music is composed of beautiful, interesting details which will need a fair amount of rehearsal time and special attention. After pushing away all my other worries, my main concern is now: how can they put together seven new orchestral pieces in such a short time?

Besides reading seven new pieces in one day and performing them on the next, ACO’s program also includes workshops with mentor composers, conductors, principals, and other people from the music business, so that the composers can learn about every possible aspect of orchestral music.

Can’t wait!

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