Author: Hilary Purrington

On the Value of Time

Not too long ago, I received an email invitation to apply for an opportunity to work with an established ensemble. The application was a highly involved process and would make considerable demands on my time—including a trip out of state. If awarded the appointment, the position would require many obligations in addition to composing, including outreach, lectures, and a series of curated concerts.

The only mention of money? “We’re in the process of securing some grants,” the email read. Oh, okay.

I politely declined the invitation, explaining that I was already fully committed for the season in question (which was true). But, the more I contemplated the massive time commitment requested by the organization, the more troubled I became. How was it remotely appropriate to contact a person about a highly specialized, complex job—which also required a time-consuming, rigorous application process—without mentioning compensation?

This kind of treatment is rampant throughout our industry, and I know that performers certainly experience their own versions of the above scenario. Our field is plagued by an aversion toward discussing money, and this problem exists on both sides of the hiring equation. For composers, however, this issue is compounded by the very nature of our work. Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do. This lack of understanding can result in a reluctance to discuss compensation and often justifies gross demands on our time and abilities.

Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component. When you approach a composer about a potential commission or collaboration, funding should be among the first issues you address. While it may feel distasteful to discuss money alongside your artistic vision, know that avoiding the topic—and even placing the impetus on the composer to inquire—is enormously disrespectful. Most composers wouldn’t claim to be in this business for the money, but we do expect to be treated professionally and compensated appropriately.

So. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you approach a composer and begin a conversation about a project:

Reach out to us in advance. Way in advance. Composition is a time-consuming activity. I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance. While there are exceptions, I typically can’t take on last-minute projects. Definitely reach out and ask us, but keep in mind that we’re often planning a season or two (or more!) ahead.

Be up front about the amount and source of your funding. This is critically important, regardless of your budget size. If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations. We’ll respect your honesty, and if we can’t work with you this time, we’ll be more likely to consider future projects.

Directly address the work that you and/or your organization are putting in. Programming, performances, promotion, recording—what’s your investment? What are you contributing to make this project worthwhile for both parties?

Understand that demands on time separate from composing must be compensated. Community outreach? Masterclasses? A meet-and-greet with donors and subscribers? Great! Some musicians might offer these services for free or as part of their commitment; however, you should not make this assumption. Our time is valuable, and we need to be paid for our time.

Speaking of non-composing tasks: Address the time, effort, and expense that goes into engraving and preparing parts. This one is different for everyone—some composers consider engraving and parts preparation integral parts of their compositional process. Others don’t, and many composers outsource this work. Either way, budget both time and money to accommodate this phase.

Don’t act surprised or attempt to guilt us when we don’t offer a service for free or for a low/discounted fee. I’m frequently approached by individuals seeking music critiques, new arrangements of current works, business and marketing advice, and copyediting—with the expectation that I offer these services for free. When I indicate otherwise, I’m often met with incredulous responses like “But this will only take a few minutes!” Right, cool, but since when do you get to determine the value of my time?

Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others. It is imperative to understand collaborators’ expectations before agreeing to a project (and always make sure your exact responsibilities are detailed in a contract). Guard your time, and don’t be afraid to set firm boundaries.

Time is valuable. This is something that I remember every day when I sit down to compose—truly, respect for others’ time is demanded by the very nature of my craft. The time that an audience member spends listening to my music ought to be worthwhile, and that’s the standard that I strive to uphold.

In short: We, as composers, respect your time. Please respect ours.

  • Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington

There’s Still So Much to Learn, But I’m More Confident Now

Early in 2016, one of my friends asked me to describe my career aspirations. Where do I see myself in five years, or in ten years?

I’ve always found this kind of question to be extremely difficult to answer. Careers and opportunities—especially in the world of classical music—can change so quickly, and sometimes quite arbitrarily. Often, planning and setting goals can seem like futile exercises. I’m always concerned that long-term planning will lead to disappointment, or will get in the way of larger opportunities.

So, in responding to my friend’s question, I kept my answer somewhat vague. “I want people to hear my orchestral music,” I said. “I want to write more of it, and I want opportunities for it to be heard!”

The past year has been extraordinary for me.

The past year has been extraordinary for me. Last November, I was attending rehearsals with the Yale Philharmonia as they prepared Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for a December performance. The concert program only consisted of new works for orchestra written by composition students at the Yale School of Music. I learned so much throughout those rehearsals—not only from hearing my own piece, but from hearing my colleagues’ music as well. I didn’t imagine that Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky would have an interesting life beyond the December concert.

In February of 2017, I learned that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings. Later in the spring, I received an invitation to attend the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. I now had opportunities to rethink sections of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky and make revisions.

At this point, Likely Pictures is a strong piece, and it’s also a practical piece. The musicians of both the American Composers Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra seemed to understand what it was about fairly quickly. After several revisions, the notation is very clear, and there are very few questions regarding my intentions. I have been present at every performance of my orchestral music; ideally, a conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.

A conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.

In the spring of 2017, I learned that I had won a commission from the New York Youth Symphony. This was extraordinary news—I was receiving my very first orchestra commission! In my application, I had submitted Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky as my work sample. In a significant way, Likely Pictures had made this new opportunity possible.

Hilary Purrington standing outside Carnegie Hall in front of the New York Youth Symphony November 19, 2017 Concert Poster featuring a photo of her and listing her world premiere performance.

This past weekend, I heard the premiere of Daylights, my newest orchestral work. Commissioned as part of First Music, the New York Youth Symphony’s commission competition, Daylights literally opened the NYYS’s 2017-18 season. The work is a short, active concert opener. When I began composing it, I knew I wanted to create moments that capture the sensation of staring into a brilliant light. The word “daylights,” most often found as part of the expression “the living daylights,” is an archaic idiom referring to an individual’s eyes or consciousness. The title takes on many meanings—personal awareness and perception as well as the brilliant light of day.

Very often, my compositions come in pairs. I discover a sound or technique while writing one piece, and then I seek to improve upon it in a subsequent work. In a way, Daylights is an expansion of what I learned while composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky.

As I explained in a previous post, early drafts of Likely Pictures were extremely episodic, and my transitions between sections were less than graceful. My teacher, Christopher Theofanidis, encouraged me to revisit these sections and compose elegant transitions. Chris taught me to be thoughtful and deliberate when writing transitional material, and this new, increased awareness has impacted everything I have written over the course of the past year.

Similar to Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, Daylights opens with a very sparse, delicate texture. The violins sustain very high, fragile harmonics, and a solo flute sings out a melody. I add glockenspiel, a second flute, and—eventually—solo violin and a very rude bass drum. In the final measures of the work, the music returns to a thicker, more active version of the work’s introductory, chamber-like material before blossoming into a noisy, active conclusion. In both Likely Pictures and Daylights, I contrast moments of intimate chamber music with expansive orchestral passages.

When composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I experimented with combining instruments to create percussive, staccato “hits.” It’s a defining characteristic of the piece, and I chose to incorporate this element into Daylights (although, in a less significant way). In this case, however, the “hits” are orchestrated differently, and I usually use something to lead into these staccato punches. For example, in one passage, a crescendoing snare roll and solo flute terminates with pizzicato strings and a choked suspended cymbal. This is an example of how I grow artistically: I find a musical element or effect that I like, and I experiment with it in different pieces and contexts. It then becomes something that I can keep in my “repertoire” of sounds and ideas.

I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.

Following the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings this past June, I learned that I had been awarded the Underwood Commission. Every year, one of the UNMR participants is selected to receive a commission for a future season. This is an extraordinary opportunity and privilege for me, and it will be my first commission from a professional orchestra. And, this opportunity is arriving at an interesting time for me, both artistically and professionally. I have learned so much about orchestral writing over the course of this past year. I’m a lot more confident in my ability to compose for orchestra, and I have so many ideas I want to hear realized. I also recognize that I still have so much to learn, and I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.

Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. (Photo by Mele Willis, courtesy Minnesota Orchestra.)

Good Advice is Extremely Hard to Find

At the Minnesota Composer Institute, composers Daniel Schlosberg, Saad Haddad, Peter Shin, Charles Peck, Daniel Schlosberg, Nina Young, Andrew Hsu, and I listened to and participated in a number of presentations and workshops related to professional development.

Professional development is a strange but very necessary topic for composers. Our industry changes so quickly and, as a result, very few elements remain consistent over time. Career paths for musicians are no longer defined (and perhaps I’m naive to think that there ever was a somewhat clear-cut path to “success,” whatever that even means). To complicate things further, our mentors are often the luckiest people in the industry. This isn’t to say that they haven’t faced struggles or haven’t worked hard; several of my mentors didn’t become successful composers until later in life. But, as many of us have discovered, something as simple as being in the right place at the right time can change the course of a career.

I’ve also realized that good advice is extremely hard to find. This isn’t meant to insult any of my wonderful mentors; they have all provided me with invaluable words of wisdom, both practical and artistic. But they have never been a 26-year-old female composer trying to build a career in the United States in 2017. In a somewhat volatile industry, it is important to remember this.

And then there’s the question of “success.” What does that even mean? Of course, every composer has a different definition of success. But, unlike many other industries, we don’t have a general universal concept of what this means.

Unlike many other industries, we don’t have a general universal concept of what success means.

I tend to find career development workshops puzzling or even frustrating because definitive answers don’t really exist. We’re just reminded that there isn’t a clear way of attaining an undefinable thing.

But, obviously, we need career development workshops. We need to discuss these problems and fears—we don’t address them enough. Focusing on technique and artistry is important, but it will be difficult to develop your craft outside of school if you don’t know how to find and create opportunities.

During our first day at the Institute, we met with Steven Lankenau, Senior Director of Promotion at Boosey & Hawkes. He discussed the benefits of signing with a publisher and what publishers do for composers. At some point in a composer’s career, explained Mr. Lankenau, a composer will find that he or she needs help in some area of work. In addition to providing editing and marketing services, publishers can connect composers with ensembles, coordinate co-commissions, negotiate fees, and help a composer plan long-term writing schedules.

Mr. Lankenau also discussed what publishing companies look for in composers. They look for artists who have already built strong momentum. In addition to a sense of excitement surrounding the composer, publishers value a strong and consistent artistic voice, solid technique, and marketability. Style and aesthetics are usually less important.

Publishers value a strong and consistent artistic voice, solid technique, and marketability.

But, Mr. Lankenau also reminded us that there is no such thing as a perfect all-around composer—a very important thing to remember. It is rare that a composer is knowledgeable and proficient across all genres and styles. Publishers, fortunately, are not searching for this mythical composer.

On the same day, the composers met with Bill Holab. When I heard him speak at the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings in June, Mr. Holab focused on issues specific to music engraving. At the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, Mr. Holab mainly discussed the advantages of self-publishing.

Mr. Holab provides services to composers, including music engraving and editing, production, and representation. As with Mr. Lankenau, Mr. Holab explained that successful composers eventually need advocates, or some kind of assistance. Rather than signing with a publisher, Mr. Holab recommends hiring people to help with specific needs. For example, for help with marketing, one could hire a publicist.

Signing with a publisher might not be the best business decision.

He also discussed why signing with a publisher might not be the best business decision. The most significant issue is the loss of one’s copyright. Another important issue to consider is that situations within companies can change very quickly. A company can be bought, policies can change, and suddenly an individual composer is no longer a priority.

Mr. Holab pointed out that all successful contemporary composers, whether working with publishers or self-publishing, know how to successfully market and promote themselves. They have learned how to connect with performers and potential collaborators and effectively market their music to presenters and audiences.

This theme of networking and self-promotion returned throughout the week. On the second day of the Institute, we traveled to St. Paul to visit the American Composers Forum offices. Over lunch with the ACF staff, we discussed the kinds of opportunities that are the most helpful and rewarding for us. Several composers brought up the importance of collaborations. Many competitions ask us to submit an already-written piece, and the prize might be a performance and (hopefully) some money. Opportunities that offer collaborative experiences, however, are more valuable. Rather than winning a one-time performance by an ensemble, it’s far more helpful and educational if we’re able to collaborate with the performers and, in the process, form long-lasting relationships. These kinds of connections can lead to future collaborations and professional opportunities.

In a similar vein, networking opportunities are vital. Several composers expressed the desire to connect with artists in other disciplines—dancers, video artists, etc. Many of our professional relationships developed during our formal education, and this can result in a fairly narrow professional circle. When we’re no longer in school, we have to work much harder to cultivate and maintain our professional circles. This requires resolution and effort. Occasionally, we might even have to interact with non-musicians!

We also had the opportunity to improve our public speaking skills with Diane Odash, a senior teaching specialist in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. As composers, we are often expected to stand up in front of an audience and speak coherently about our own music. Although many schools’ composition programs require composition majors to speak before performances, we rarely receive any formal training in this area. Any strengths that I have come from my background as a singer and knowledge of performance and audition etiquette.

Each composer stood up in front of the group and spoke for two minutes about our music. Prof. Odash timed us, and then provided feedback. She also addressed nervousness, stressing that anxiety and its symptoms are part of our natural fight-or-flight response. In this case, rather than “fighting a tiger,” we’re just talking about ourselves in front of an audience for a very brief period of time.

Legal mistakes can be time-consuming and expensive to fix.

We also listened to a presentation given by Katie Baron, an attorney who focuses on music and copyright law. She discussed copyright basics, fair use, and what commissioning agreements should cover. This is an extremely important area for composers, and it is imperative that we have a thorough knowledge of our and others’ rights. It’s also valuable to be able to recognize where your knowledge of copyright law is limited. You then know when it is appropriate to seek legal counsel. I’ve heard composers unknowingly misuse terms, and that’s concerning, as legal mistakes can be time-consuming and expensive to fix.

Finally, we met with Kari Marshall, Director of Artistic Planning for the Minnesota Orchestra, and Frank J. Oteri, composer advocate at New Music USA and co-editor of NewMusicBox. We discussed how to effectively promote our own music. Websites and social media have made it so simple to make our music accessible; however, every other musician also has access to these resources. How we differentiate ourselves from the larger crowd then becomes the issue. Again — we must be proactive when it comes to forming and maintaining genuine relationships with artists and presenters.

Kari Marshall discussed how programming decisions occur and why the Minnesota Orchestra might decide to program a contemporary work or commission a new one. Again, she emphasized the importance of relationships. Many composers of these programmed works have formed connections with the orchestra’s musicians or with the larger organization. An example: a composer appearing on next season’s programming actually participated in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute several years back!

Self-promotion and networking skills aren’t formally taught in school, unfortunately; it’s rare that I’ve ever discussed these topics in a private lesson, for example. The most helpful classes I took were actually outside of music schools. We naturally form connections with other artists while in pursuing academic degrees; however, after we graduate, developing and maintaining relationships requires a high amount of proactivity. We have to leave our studios, see some sunlight, and connect with other artists and professionals.

You Study, Practice, and Improve

Last Sunday, I flew from New York City to Minneapolis. I boarded my flight and almost immediately fell asleep. When I woke up mid-flight (just in time for the drink cart to arrive at my aisle), the woman seated next to me commented, “You’re very quiet!”

I almost responded with “You’re welcome,” but I thought that might come off as a little snarky. Instead, I nodded and smiled and hoped she’d leave me to enjoy my lukewarm coffee. Much to my chagrin, she started asking questions. Am I from Minneapolis? From New York? Traveling for work? For fun? Blinking vigorously and rubbing my eyes in an attempt to re-moisten my contact lenses, I answered her questions, and I didn’t make a single thing up (as I usually do). I told her I was flying to Minneapolis to participate in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

“A composer!” she gasped. “Wow. Just, wow. That is a true gift. Wow.” She then proceeded to barrage me with unsolicited, ill-informed career advice, which I won’t get into here. But, to return to her initial reaction–this kind of statement isn’t uncommon. Composing can be a mysterious thing to both musicians and non-musicians, and many people describe it as a “gift,” as if we composers possess special powers. Others simply say, “Composing? That sounds really hard.”

Much of composing, though, is just like any other skill or ability: you study, practice, and improve. I’m sometimes tempted to answer the question of “So, do you know how to play all the instruments?” with “Why yes, I do.” But, learning how instruments work and what is idiomatic is a long process that involves a lot of trial and error. Countless rehearsals and performances over the past ten years or so have taught me what works, what’s risky, and what fails. And I’m still learning! Every rehearsal and performance experience compels me to reexamine what and how I write.

Learning how instruments work and what is idiomatic is a long process that involves a lot of trial and error.

Orchestral writing can be particularly tricky because opportunities for readings and performances can be few and far between, especially for “emerging” composers. This past year, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked on Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky with three different orchestras: the Yale Philharmonia, the American Composers Orchestra, and most recently, the Minnesota Orchestra.

Hilary Purrington with score in hand discusses a detail in her score with Osmo Vänskä during a rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Hilary Purrington with score in hand discusses a detail in her score with Osmo Vänskä during a rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Directed by composer Kevin Puts, the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute lasts for five full days and includes workshops, rehearsals, and meetings with conductor Osmo Vänskä and musicians from the orchestra. The program culminates in the Future Classics concert on the final day of the program. The Institute is comprehensive, and each composer’s work receives thorough and generous rehearsal time. We were all astounded by the speed at which the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra learn and understand new pieces. By the second rehearsal, Maestro Vänskä and the orchestra musicians were no longer assembling the pieces and figuring out how they worked; rather, the ensemble had shifted its focus to musical and artistic decisions.

Throughout the week, the seven participating composers met with representatives from each of the orchestra’s sections. The musicians gave us honest feedback regarding our writing for their instruments and how we chose to notate and format our music.  Similar themes reappeared throughout these meetings. The musicians repeatedly reminded us that they have very busy musical lives and are responsible for learning massive volumes of music. Given the limited amount of practice time a musician has for a single piece, it is vitally important that our writing is as clear as possible and simple to put together. For very practical reasons, no performer wants to be responsible for solving a complicated puzzle.

Musicians also assume that everything they see in their part will be heard. It can be disappointing to find out that a technically demanding passage is either completely obscured or “just an effect.” The “just an effect” issue is a common problem, especially when extended techniques are involved. Certain effects may work well in chamber contexts, but they don’t necessarily translate well to orchestral writing. Many extended techniques are quiet and subtle, and their effects are lost because they are obscured or simply can’t carry through a large hall.

Certain effects work well in chamber contexts, but don’t necessarily translate to orchestral writing.

The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra also stressed the importance of clear notation. Several individuals pointed out that modern notation created with computers can lead composers to make overly complicated parts. Rather than providing clarity, “over-notated” passages only cause confusion and frustration. In many instances, it can be better to use words to convey the composer’s intentions. But, don’t use too many words. One of the musicians asked me to use fewer adjectives and descriptions. So, you can’t necessarily please everyone, but it is helpful to consider the many perspectives and opinions of individual orchestra members.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the week was the opportunity to learn my colleagues’ music. The seven of us (Saad Haddad, Andrew Hsu, Peter Shin, Nina Young, Dan Schlosberg, Charles Peck, and myself) have very different musical instincts when it comes to composing for orchestra. Observing the choices that other composers make—whether musical or notational—and how these decisions impact rehearsals performances is both educational and inspiring.

An open program for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute showing photos of the seven composers featured in November 2017.

It was also incredibly clear to us how important the Composer Institute is to the Minnesota Orchestra. Rather than handing the concert off to an assistant, Music Director Osmo Vänskä studied, learned, and conducted all of our pieces. He gave thoughtful feedback and criticism, and made us feel as if our music is just as important as the repertoire of any standard concert. The orchestra musicians, rather than sight reading in the first rehearsal, had actually taken the time to practice their parts; many had even contacted us beforehand with specific questions.

The Orchestra’s communications team worked hard to promote the concert, and it showed. The turnout for the performance was remarkable: the hall appeared almost full, and Orchestra Hall is not a diminutive space. During the intermission and following the concert, audience members sought to speak with us, and their enthusiasm for new music and the Minnesota Orchestra was more than apparent.

And, regarding the performances themselves, Maestro Vänskä and all the musicians were thoroughly invested in the music. All of our pieces were performed thoughtfully and musically. The Orchestra’s performance of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky was flawlessly executed and beautifully paced, and I couldn’t be happier with how it sounded.

Hearing my own work is always informative. Rehearsal and performances reveal if my choices were correct or highly questionable. But, my experience at the Composer Institute went beyond the typical rehearse-then-perform process. We received thoughtful feedback from the musicians and the conductor, and we had the opportunity to learn one another’s works and witness how our colleagues’ compositional decisions played out.

We can’t experiment without hearing our music rehearsed and performed by live ensembles.

Compositional skill develops with study and experimentation; however, we can’t experiment without hearing our music rehearsed and performed by live ensembles. Experiences such as the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute give composers much-needed opportunities to hear works realized. I learned so much this past week, more than I can sum up in a blog post. I’m back in New York City now, and I’m excited to work and write and apply what I’ve learned.

The Minnesota Orchestra onstage at Orchestra Hall performing in front of a near capacity audience.

There was a nearly full house for the Minnesota Orchestra’s Future Classics concert on Friday, November 10.

Composing and Revising Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky

For a while, I’ve claimed that clarity is the most important aspect of my music. I want musicians to know what’s going on so they can musically react and interpret their part, and I never want an audience member to feel lost or perplexed. For me, a large part of growing and improving as a composer involves learning how to more effectively communicate with both performers and listeners.

There are two sides to this. Musically, I strive to create narratives that both performers and listeners can follow. On a more practical level, I carefully edit my scores and parts so that performers and conductors know what I’m looking for. As simplistic as it seems, I’ve learned to notate my music so that it will sound exactly the way I want it to.

The process of writing and revising has been transformative.

The process of writing and revising Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for orchestra has been transformative for my writing. It’s my third orchestral piece, and it’s the only one I’ve been able to revise for subsequent performances. In its current form, the work is the product of important previous experiences and careful revisions.

I’ve been fortunate to attend schools that give composition students opportunities to hear orchestral works read and sometimes performed. In the summer preceding my second year at Juilliard, I began working on my second orchestral piece. I planned to apply to doctoral programs and, knowing that a reading at Juilliard would be my only chance to make a decent recording before application deadlines, I intended to compose something that could function well with very little rehearsal time. It needed to be simple and straightforward with the potential to sound polished by the end of a brief reading session.

This became Extraordinary Flora (2014). Composing a delicate, straightforward piece forced me to carefully consider how I presented and orchestrated my musical materials.  If I had composed this piece earlier, it would have felt counterintuitive, as if I was wasting the ensemble’s potential. But, this experience taught me that writing for orchestra with a sense of restraint can actually be more effective. Carefully controlling the energy of a massive ensemble allowed me to harness and focus it for moments that really mattered.

I began thinking about my next orchestral piece, Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky (2016), early in the summer before my second year at the Yale School of Music. In a continuation of what I had discovered while writing Extraordinary Flora, I wanted to create delicate, chamber-like moments that would contrast with expansive, more “orchestral” sounds.

The opening texture of Likely Pictures was my first significant idea; before anything else, I knew how I wanted the beginning to sound. I imagined a dry, sparse introduction with solo pizzicato notes sounding from within the strings section. Then, I wanted a slow, simple melody (unison piano and vibraphone) to soar over the pointillistic activity. A low, indistinct rumbling noise (tremolo basses, very low piano, and rolled bass drum) would slowly emerge.

And then I had to figure out the rest of the piece. This is how I usually begin writing: I compose the opening, and then pause to consider what happens next. On a large sheet of paper, I create a timeline and draw out the trajectory of the piece, determining proportions and how important moments will occur. I continue to refer back to these initial, basic sketches, often changing my mind and adjusting my plan.

During the first phase of composing, I always write by hand, usually at a piano. I improvise and sing and play until I find what I’m looking for. I compose with paper and pencil until it feels counterproductive to do so—that is, when it becomes apparent that I’m notating, not composing. I then begin organizing my materials into notation software. For me, notation software allows for greater flexibility as I alter and rework. And, I like the idea that the final barline is always there, waiting for me to meet it at the end of the piece.

I think it’s important to experience the passage of time like an audience member might.

At a certain point, playback becomes valuable, and I know many composers who would disagree with me on this. But, I think it’s important to experience the passage of time like an audience member might. Playing through the music at the piano, or singing, or conducting, or just closing my eyes and imagining—these exercises force me to actively participate in the music, and this participation drastically alters my sense of time.

When school started in the fall of 2016, I had notated a nearly complete draft of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky. I brought what I had to my teacher, Christopher Theofanidis. In initial drafts, the piece was very episodic, and Chris advised me cover these seams and create smooth, elegant transitions between sections. This transformed the work’s continuity and overall cohesion.

We reworked individual sections as well. For example, I had initially imagined the solo pizzicato gestures of the opening section as coming from players within the section. Chris convinced me that the drama of seeing the individual players was important, especially as these subtle sounds recede. At a certain point, an audience member can’t quite hear the pizzicato notes, but he or she can see them. Visual cues can smooth over transitions, too.

Two months after the piece’s premiere with the Yale Philharmonia, I found out that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra’s Underwood New Music Readings. I took this opportunity to make some revisions, as I realized that my notation wasn’t always as clear as it could be.

The most significant and time-consuming change I made was to tie over sustained notes so that the pitch stops on a sixteenth note. Throughout the first section of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I ask the first violins to crescendo through sustained tones. I noticed that many of the players seemed to back away before the completion of the note value, causing a sudden decrease of energy. Tying these notes over to sixteenth notes conveyed that I wanted the sound to persist and grow for the duration of the pitch. It’s not the most visually elegant notation, but I think it better conveyed my point, and I was happier with the ACO’s treatment of this gesture.

A passage from Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky

A passage from Hilary Purrington’s Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky showing how she notated sustained notes in a way that maintained energy for their entire duration.

I made other, far smaller adjustments. Yale’s music library had returned my parts, so I was able to consider the performers’ notes. Aside from small notational changes, deciding exactly what to revise was tricky. The Yale Philharmonia usually performs in Woolsey Hall, Yale’s largest performance venue. Visually, the hall is an ornate, dramatic space; acoustically, however, it’s not unlike an empty water tower. Although I was happy with the performance and the recording, the muddiness and other acoustic peculiarities made it difficult for me to decide what actually needed to change.

The Underwood New Music Readings took place in the DiMenna Center. Aside from clarifying some notation, I wanted to leave many elements of the piece untouched because I was curious as to how Likely Pictures would sound in a drier venue. The change in acoustics made an incredible difference; – staccato notes were actually staccato, for example. Each performance had its strengths, and I don’t think I could say that I substantially prefer one recording over the other.

One of the most valuable experiences was receiving direct feedback from the musicians.

One of the most valuable experiences of the Underwood New Music Readings was the opportunity to receive direct feedback from the musicians. As regular performers with the American Composers Orchestra, these musicians have seen and played an unbelievable variety of new works, and they are quick to catch on and understand a composer’s intentions. The instrumentalists gave the same advice to all the participating composers: Make an individual musician’s purpose clear. And, beyond this: Make it clear that the musician’s role is necessary and valuable. If a passage is particularly tricky, at least make it gratifying for the player.

Hilary Purrington receives feedback from Underwood mentor composers Derek Bermel and Trevor Weston. Hilary Purrington receives feedback from Underwood mentor composers Derek Bermel and Trevor Weston (Photo by Jiayi Photography, courtesy American Composers Orchestra)./caption]

For me, generating material is the most straightforward part of composing. Using Western notation and occasional words to describe an abstract idea and a musician’s role within that is often a complex task. In November, I have the opportunity to workshop Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky yet again, this time with the Minnesota Orchestra as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute. The skill of effective and efficient communication can only be sharpened by experience, and I’m very grateful for another opportunity to continue learning and improving my craft.