Making Something Work vs. Doing Whatever You Want

Making Something Work vs. Doing Whatever You Want

Chalk it up to some strange celestial alignment, if you’re into those sorts of interpretations, but over the past couple of weeks I have spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to orchestral music. It’s somewhat ironic considering that, as a composer, I have had little to no interest in writing orchestra music for a variety of reasons—a personal disinclination to tell people precisely what to do, the lack of rehearsal time, a seeming resistance to experimentation among orchestra players and administrators. But what gets me into a concert hall most of the time is a premiere, and there have been quite a few orchestra premieres this month. Luckily, much of what I have heard at these orchestral concerts has been specifically about defying expectations. You may recall my post about attending the American Composers Orchestra’s extremely inspiring concert, coLABoratory: Playing It Unsafe at Zankel Hall back on April 5. That program, in which the composers were given free reign to re-imagine the orchestra however they saw fit, seemed an ideal model for how to approach this medium.

The following week, the New York Philharmonic presented an all-American program: Christopher Rouse’s brand new Prospero’s Rooms—an exciting concert opener with a particularly powerful ending—was paired with Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (a de facto concerto for violin and strings) and what might still be my all-time favorite symphony after all these years, Charles Ives’s Fourth. The work is a massive sprawl of a piece, defiant in its impracticality. It had to wait for eleven years after the composer’s death to receive its first complete performance, and at that 1965 premiere by the American Symphony Orchestra Leopold Stokowski shared podium duties with two assistant conductors in an attempt to untangle the labyrinthine layers of cross rhythms in the score. The symphony is practically a text book of how not to write for orchestra: cryptic instructions (the score includes a chorus but it is marked “preferably without voices”), impractical passages that are impractically notated (in the second movement the strings are required to play passages in quartertones which are notated with square note heads), under-utilized instruments (the piece requires an organ but it only plays for a few measures in the third movement, there’s a trumpet part that has just a single note in the final movement, etc.). But nevertheless, the NY Phil totally nailed it and miraculously—though it rarely surfaces on concert programs—Ives’s 4th is being done in New York again next month: the Detroit Symphony will play it as part of a Spring for Music program featuring all four numbered Ives symphonies at Carnegie Hall. So while the piece seems to go out of its way to make matters difficult for orchestras, it is somehow finally entering the repertoire.

Of course, the accepted wisdom (at least here in the United States) for getting music in front of an orchestra—and getting the players to do an effective job with it—is to streamline what you write: make it relatively easy to sight-read, avoid pitch and metrical things that are out of the ordinary, etc. That message got drilled into my head most of last week when I participated as a moderator for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) readings by the Buffalo Philharmonic. (The event was the second phase of JCOI, a project initiated by the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University and the American Composers Orchestra in cooperation with The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and EarShot, the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network; more details can be read here.) Five composers with predominantly jazz backgrounds—Gregg August, Anita Brown, Joel Harrison, Ole Mathisen, and David Wilson—got to hear their first pieces for symphony orchestra during two days of readings. Although if any generalization can be made about the music (it was quite a varied lot) it is that most of the time it was not particularly apparent that these composers came from jazz backgrounds. This sparked a bunch of lively debates with the participating composers, as well as with mentor composers Anthony Davis, Nicole Mitchell, and James Newton, plus Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel with whom I co-led the discussions.

BPO Composer Panel

BPO Composer Panel (left to right): Howard Mandel, conductor Matt Kraemer, Ole Mathisen, Anita Brown, Gregg August, David Wilson, Joel Harrison and FJO.
Photo by Greg Evans, American Composers Orchestra.

Before I heard a note of anyone’s music, I thumbed through the five scores and was very excited to see quintuple and septimal meters in several of the pieces. Sadly, this detail was one of the aspects of the scores that section leaders in the orchestra were quick to point out made the proceedings more difficult for the players than they needed to be: “You’d save a great deal of rehearsal time if you rewrote those bars of seven into alternating bars of three and four.” I was crestfallen. What would those players have said about Ives’s Fourth? I hope these composers ultimately decide to keep their scores the way they originally wrote them, although it’s difficult to resist the lure of making something more navigable, especially when you’re dealing with a medium in which every second of time spent on a new piece of music is something of a luxury.

BPO Feedback Session

Following the first day of the reading sessions, section leaders from BPO met with the participating composers and the mentors for a feedback session in which the musicians suggested ways to make each of these scores more suitable for orchestral performance.
Photo by Greg Evans, American Composers Orchestra.

Before I trekked off to Buffalo, I attended the three nights of the 2013 MATA Festival at Roulette, which was much more in keeping with my own personal compositional aesthetics and a performance practice that allows for such aesthetics to be effectively realized. Each concert was a non-stop rollercoaster ride of challenging new works that defied practical considerations. The players of the various invited ensembles—including Israel’s Meitar and NYC’s own Talea Ensemble—seemed to completely revel in it: whether it was making a variety of sounds on the backs of their instruments (as in Mexico-born and Netherlands-based Hugo Morales Murguia’s Tonewood), creating an effective counterpoint for the sound of rain (as in Seth Cluett’s ambient Cloud-to-Air scored for three clarinets, water-filled metal tray, sine tones, and projections), or attempting to convey what it’s like to live on the planet Mercury (as in Christopher Bailey’s fascinating Mergurs Ehd Ffleweh Bq Nsolst).

Meitar Ens plays Chris Bailey

The Meitar Ensemble with Sukato navigating through Christopher Bailey’s Mergurs Ehd Ffleweh Bq Nsolst during the 2013 MATA Festival at Roulette. Photo by Alex G. Knight/courtesy MATA Festival.

Rain Piece

Seth Cluett finds the music in rain in Cloud-to-Air. Photo by Alex G. Knight/courtesy MATA Festival.

While admittedly there’s a huge range between making something work and doing whatever you want, I’ve always been more of a “do whatever you want” kind of guy—and I’ve been usually lucky in finding fellow travelers who have been willing to try things that might appear to be impossible. Last Thursday, I flew back from Buffalo just in time to hear clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki play a solo piece of mine from 2009 that I had previously been convinced was actually unplayable. She not only played it, she made it musically compelling. But that’s because she devoted a ton of time to making it her own.

The current working model for orchestras does not allow musicians to spend a great deal of time on anything, not even the tried and true orchestra standards that they usually sound great playing—those pieces sound so good most of the time because the players have had numerous experiences playing them as well as listening to them over the course of their professional lives. Yet there’s something really exciting about hearing a live orchestra perform a new piece of music. Until we find a way to create more time for composers and orchestra musicians to experiment with new ideas, however, the possibilities for new orchestra music will ultimately be stillborn.

Later this week, I will travel to Cleveland to be the master of ceremonies for two Cleveland Orchestra concerts at the Cleveland Museum of Art featuring music by maverick California composers. One program will pair Henry Cowell’s unrepentantly gnarly 1928 Sinfonietta (a work that was once conducted by Anton Webern) with Dane Rudhyar’s 1982 Out of the Darkness (a world premiere 31 years after it was originally composed and 28 years after its composer’s death!) and Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin with String Orchestra. The other concert joins John Adams’s career defining Shaker Loops (in the version for string orchestra), Terry Riley’s 1990 string quartet concerto The Sands, and James Tenney’s indeterminate 1972 Clang, which has never been commercially recorded. As a grand finale, I have been asked to participate in a performance of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s wild HPSCHD, in which a group of amplified harpsichords is pitted against a barrage of electronically manipulated sounds. Of course, all of this will only further my commitment to all these crazy, recalcitrant sounds!


Basically all I want to do is mess around with the backs of instruments after hearing Hugo Morales Murguia’s Tonewood at the 2013 MATA Festival. Photo by Alex G. Knight/courtesy MATA Festival.

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2 thoughts on “Making Something Work vs. Doing Whatever You Want

  1. Kyle Gann

    Well said, Frank, and a perennial problem. Ives himself had tremendous headaches with every orchestra conductor he met except Nicolas Slonimsky – they even balked at the amount of rehearsal needed for his conventional *First* Symphony. And in the Memos he characterized all the advice he got from professional musicians as boiling down to, “If you want something played, write something you don’t want played.”

    By the way, one reason there have been so many performances of Ives’s Fourth lately, here and abroad, is because the Ives Society has a wonderful new edition of the Fourth available, which not only comes with easier-to-read parts, but makes the piece playable with either one conductor or two. The huge score ($190) is beautifully set by genius Tom Brodhead, and comes with a CD that contains the complete manuscript in extremely high resolution, and many other features. It’s a difficult, impractical piece, but it’s recently become considerably more practical than it was.

  2. Jon Liechty

    All music, whether playing or composing, requires an act of faith. Composers produce, usually, with little indication that anyone other than themselves will be interested in what they have created. Even if they have specific players to write for, players they know will be sympathetic and put in the time and effort needed to understand what they have done, there is no guarantee that any particular piece, once played, will interest anyone else.

    Performers, too, must make a leap of faith to invest time and energy in learning something by a composer they are not familiar with. Certainly they can look at a composer’s reputation, previous accomplishments, awards and other credentials, but in the end it’s still the performer and the instrument facing the unknown, converting the unknown, by hard work, into the approachable.

    This uncertainty is part of the process of making music; part of what defines us as artists is how we deal with it.


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