Author: Stephen Gorbos

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 4: The Last Day

The Buffalo 4

The four participating composers in the Buffalo EarShot readings—Daniel Schlosberg, David Marenberg, Stephen Gorbos, and Elizabeth Lim—go over their scores one more time after hearing their pieces.

To close out our experience in Buffalo, we spent around three-and-a-half hours with the mentor composers picking through our scores and the revisions we made, making some attempt to evaluate the successes and failures of our efforts. This was the session where the gloves came off: we all felt like this was the most pointed criticism we had received from them to date. What made this different, and a bit more personal perhaps, was that the mentor composers were finally commenting on and asking questions about aesthetics. Most of the comments prior to the last read through had more to do with the mechanics of orchestration: whereas on days 1-3 someone might look at your cello ostinato in terms of how it sounded in a particular moment in time, today it was very much about the effectiveness of the cello ostinato over the form of the piece, or, should we even be writing cello ostinatos. (To be fair to our mentor composers, we weren’t talking about something as basic as cello ostinatos: much of this conversation actually centered around the aesthetics of quotation and allusion.)

Though some personal biases definitely shone through, the words of our three mentors were still very supportive, and I do think that in most cases they were definitely working with us to plunge deeper into some idea or concept that we ourselves had articulated. That said, it seems to me that while there are some objective truths about timbral combinations, it sometimes just comes down to subjective personal taste. In that everyone was being so candid, it was interesting to watch these three heavy hitters occasionally disagree with each other: it’s a testament to their professionalism and self-confidence that, despite some differences of opinion, a collegial and friendly tone was kept throughout. I should also add that I think that it was really generous of them to treat us this way: all of us have heard “great piece—lovely” enough by this point in our brief careers. How useful is a generic complement, even if it feels good because it comes from someone you admire? Having some experience as a teacher now at Catholic University, I can recognize how difficult and mentally taxing it is to tell a student, particularly one that’s doing something different than you, what you really think of how they executed their intentions. While it certainly has something to do with the mix of personalities in the room, I think that this level of comfort being achieved also has a lot to do with the unique program that the American Composers Orchestra staff has put together.

The EarShot readings are an incredibly unique opportunity for emerging composers to hear and work on their orchestra pieces. Simply saying that a great orchestra read our pieces would be an oversimplification of it, though: at the heart of the EarShot experience is dialogue—ialogue between a composer’s ideas, an ensemble of quality musicians, and several different sets of eyes and ears, all determined to make this a very solid experience. What makes it an instance of, to borrow a line from the ACO’s website, “the best orchestration lesson ever” is several trips around the circle of dialogue I described above. Given all of that dialogue over a compressed amount of time, perhaps “an orchestration lesson on steroids” would be a more appropriate summation. (Hopefully the next person I show my revised score of Bounce to won’t accuse me of doping.) And, added to that, are the efforts of the various seminar presenters to show us the very practical ways, through community engagement, that one can gain entry into the orchestral world at a local level. So, while we were brought to Buffalo for the privilege of having an amazing group play our music, great pains were taken to show us how we could possibly interact with a world like this one in our own communities.

In addition to the mentor composers and workshop presenters that I’ve typed about at length in these posts, a big thank you needs to go out to four individuals I haven’t mentioned yet who were really the architects behind this amazing EarShot experience: on the Buffalo side of things, Dan Hart, executive director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and Robin Parkinson, director of education for the Buffalo Philharmonic; on the American Composers Orchestra side of things, Michael Geller, executive director, and Greg Evans, operations director. Michael and Greg really shepherded us all through this week. Like a trip to orchestrational Disney World, I think it’s largely thanks to these people that we had such an amazing trip, barely ever noticing the seams behind this wonderful experience they created that ran like clockwork. To extend the Disney metaphor a little further, it was a completely immersive musical sensory experience: we all stayed awake for the electric light parade, but by the time they closed the door on the plane home I was out like a kid in a stroller.

Speaking of airplanes, with the weather turning a little sour we all ended up hanging around the airport for a bit. Here are some lighthearted parting thoughts from the participant composers:

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 3: The Reading

The first bit of our second EarShot day was spent finalizing any edits. The orchestra had set an 11:00 a.m. deadline for corrections and changes to be emailed to the library staff. Some of our edits necessitated a whole new part being generated, while other corrections could just be fixed via the infamous errata sheet: an itemized list of smaller things written as concisely as possible, such as “vln 1: m 4 beat 3 = F#”. Each of us had a fair amount of changes and adjustments, and at least one new part to print out in the case of major orchestrational shifts. In my own piece, the decisions I chewed on most had to do with some of my brass writing. What I had written for the trumpets at a particular 12-bar passage was certainly in their range, but it just wasn’t cutting through the orchestra. After talking with the player, he brought it to my attention that it was too low to have any carrying power, and that the horns could project it out much better (I ended up swapping the trumpet and horn materials in that section, to much better effect). Another issue in my trumpet writing had to do with selection of mutes: a passage I wrote for a trumpet with harmon mute seemed not to be speaking. In this case, the section was timbrally exposed enough that a switch to straight mute made it much clearer.

Between noon and 6:00 p.m., we were in a series of professional development seminars, with many local composers from the area in attendance (at least three local university composition departments were represented). Bill Holab gave two engaging presentations: one on engraving and the other on copyright and publishing. Bill is an authority in both of these areas, with years of experience at places like Schirmer publishing and running his own company (Bill Holab Music Publishing). Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, gave an overview of the orchestra industry, speaking about the ever-changing ways in which composers and orchestras have been working together over the last 25 years. John Nuechterlein, president of the American Composers Forum, and Ed Harsh, president of New Music USA, participated in a panel discussion with our mentor composers on community engagement. Each member of the panel spoke about their own experiences interacting with their local communities of musicians and audiences. The common theme here could be summed up as no (successful) composer is an island: the panel members, whether talking about working with a major orchestra or starting your own chamber music series, hammered home the necessity of connecting and interacting with a community. Particularly in this last session, but in the earlier ones as well, the questions and stimulating discussion between panel and audience could have kept going for at least another hour.

At 6:00 p.m., we met individually with conductor Matthew Kraemer. This was to check-in on our changes, and also provide a chance to develop a plan of attack for the final reading session. Starting at 7:00 p.m., each composer got around 25 to 30 minutes with the orchestra. After an introduction by the composer for the assembled audience, Matthew spent a generous amount of time touching up a few choice sections, and then ran the piece down from start to finish. It was striking how much the pieces changed over the 30-hour period between the two readings: everyone’s score was in sharper focus; the forms and overarching reach of each piece were much more comprehensible. Part of this is obviously the excellent level of musicianship in the group shining through after an initial sight-reading, but I think the opportunity for editing really made a world of difference. As works in progress, many things still needed to be fleshed out in each piece, but the audience response was overly positive. A brief on-stage post-concert discussion, led by Derek Bermel, elicited some thoughtful reactions and questions from the assembled crowd.

In lieu of recordings, which haven’t been made available yet, I’m posting a page from each composer’s score below as an example of their work.

Disharmony of the Spheres

From Elizabeth Lim’s Disharmony of the Spheres

The Abyssal Zone Full Revised Score

From David Marenberg’s The Abyssal Zone

Grosse Concerto (Buffalo version)

From Daniel Schlosberg’s Grosse Concerto

Gorbos Bounce Excerpt

And a page from my own score, Bounce

After the show, we composers headed out to the Anchor Bar with ACO Operations Director Greg Evans, where we sampled a few different types of perhaps the best-known comestible innovation from our fair host city: the Buffalo wing.

Buffalo Wings Party

Stay tuned for my final post, which will be an EarShot Readings postmortem: one final look around the scores with our mentor composers, one final look around the program with the composer participants.

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 2: Nuts and Bolts

Early Wednesday morning we were all shuttled over to the beautifully historic Kleinhans Music Hall, designed in 1940 by the father-son firm of Eliel and Eero Saarinen. The morning was spent going over our scores in one-on-one sessions with BPO Associate Conductor Matthew Kraemer and in three-on-one sessions with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Margaret Brouwer, and Sebastian Currier. I was very impressed with how intimately the conductor knew each of our scores: Matthew had clearly spent time learning the intricacies of our music. My session with him was a tour through the piece, with him talking through how he might navigate a particularly dense section, or preparing me for what he thought might be problematic in the orchestra. Our sessions with the mentor composers (which we were able to listen in on for each of our colleagues) were likewise focused on spots that they thought might be opaque. Various solutions for some iffy orchestrational moments were suggested, and a few technically impossible passages on some of the instruments were found. Having all three of those very experienced sets of eyes on our scores was an intense orchestration lesson, yet was incredibly reassuring for what lay ahead: our first read-through with the orchestra.

Talking with my fellow EarShot participants throughout the morning, it seemed that we all had a similar time frame to prepare our performance materials. Once we were notified that we had been selected, and with everything else going on in our lives, this was really only around a little over a week. (To be fair, the quick turn-around time is something that is warned about in the application instructions.) After we happily committed ourselves to the EarShot program, however, the maddening reality of a quick window on a task that should ordinarily take a composer a much longer interval of time to do set in. I’m dwelling on this particular pre-Buffalo-but-very-recent moment to point out something that may often be overlooked by my non-composer readers. Composers will often finish a score, but wait to do the parts until they secure that important premiere, particularly with large ensemble scores that don’t have an immediate performance opportunity. Most of us had finished our pieces in the window of 5 to 10 months before our pieces were accepted. Digging back into a score to prepare parts is a bit like getting reacquainted with an old friend, like a college roommate or someone you met on an extended backpacking excursion. (Hey! Remember when we stayed up all night together, trying to decide how to orchestrate that crazy canon at Rehearsal I?) I personally find it a lot of fun to rediscover everything I packed into a piece, but the quick turnaround felt a bit like rolling up the welcome mat on said friend before getting one’s fill of remembering things past. My own greatest worry for today’s activities was finding something that would grind my valuable time with the orchestra to a halt. Another little-known fact in the non-composing civilian world is how quickly your rehearsal can deteriorate into chaos if enough little things are out of place: the larger the ensemble, the quicker the rebellion can start. Once you’ve lost that important trust of the ensemble, even the things that are clear can be performed flatly and devoid of life: it’s like running out of gas three miles short of the next service stop.

Thankfully, nobody’s piece broke down like that today.

Although billed as a reading, the Buffalo EarShot program actually gives their composers a pretty significant chunk of time before the performance day with the orchestra. We each had about 30 minutes with the ensemble this morning, which was enough time to run the pieces from top to bottom and work on several sections. I was struck by how, although only a first read through, the character of each work was brilliantly displayed. Even reading the pieces for the first time, the orchestra already had a command over each sound world. Elizabeth Lim’s Disharmony of the Spheres, written as an orchestral Scherzo that’s actually a movement in her Second Symphony, had crisp and vivid textures set in an ironic Mahlerian patchwork. Daniel Schlosberg likewise made a connection with the past in his Grosse Concerto, pairing elements of a slinking jazz shuffle with baroque gestures. The orchestra did a fantastic job shifting back and forth between Schlosberg’s two performance styles. Over the course of 30 minutes, the orchestra gradually got comfortable with the contrapuntal textures in my own piece, Bounce: the shifting timbres started to materialize as the conductor isolated a few sections. David Marenberg was inspired by the area 13,000 feet below the surface to create The Abyssal Zone, a swirling mass of sound where, like underwater explorers viewing bioluminescent creatures through a submarine window, listeners are subjected to exotic musical ideas swinging in and out of our focus in their aural field of vision.

After a break, representatives from the various sections of the orchestra joined us for lunch and, over the course of three hours, we got feedback on our parts and scores directly from the ensemble, conductor, and mentor composers.

The orchestra filled out comment sheets, all of which were placed in our laps after the session. It was a humbling experience to be sure, but, considering we were given the opportunity to fix any mistakes between the session today and the recorded reading tomorrow, well worth it. Having the performer representatives there to explain some of the comments on each piece was another extra step the EarShot program took that was so helpful. Anything ambiguous could be cleared up right away by the performer who would be playing the piece tomorrow. For me, this helped to make a more personal connection with the musicians who were playing my music. (The intrepid library staff was very enthusiastic about helping us implement anything we needed to make the piece better, from suggesting how to phrase a comment to helping print out a new part.) Robin Parkinson, education director for the BPO, then gave an interesting presentation on the administrative side of running an orchestra. She followed this up with a very thorough tour of the historic concert hall (joined by Maggie Shea, operations director). Day one concluded with a happy hour sponsored by the BPO at a local watering hole: members of the board and executives from the administration, all of the composers, and several members of the local Buffalo new music community were in attendance. After relaxing for an hour, we reluctantly headed back through some light snow to our hotel for a long night of editing.

EarShot Participants

Seated, l – r: Daniel Hart, BPO executive director; Earshot composers Daniel Schlosberg and David Marenberg. Standing l – r: Robin Parkinson, BPO eductation director; Michael Geller, American Composers Orchestra Executive Director; Earshot mentor composer Margaret Brouwer, Earshot composers Stephen Gorbos and Elizabeth Lim; Earshot mentor composer Sebastian Currier; American Composers Orchestra Operations Director Greg Evans, and Earshot mentor composer Derek Bermel.

Tomorrow’s post: the Big Day, or, did those edits really fix anything.

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 1: Climbing The Ladder Towards Yes

[Ed. Note: Last year, the Buffalo Philharmonic held a reading session of works by four emerging composers as part of EarShot, a national program that helps orchestras coordinate such readings. We’ve previously featured participants’ accounts of this vital program; most recently composer Michael Rickelton wrote about his experiences during the 2010 EarShot readings with the Nashville Symphony. This week the Buffalo Phil is about to embark on a second series of EarShot readings just one year after their first foray into the program. They’re actually the first orchestra thus far to participate in the program twice and plans are already underway for them to do a third series of readings in 2013! So given all this activity in Buffalo, we asked Stephen Gorbos, one of the four participants this year, to share his adventures there with us.—FJO]

Despite having arrived at my hotel in the late evening, I’m completely wired for our first day of the EarShot Readings with the Buffalo Philharmonic. The orchestra goes into labor at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow: along with a first rehearsal of the piece, tomorrow’s highlights for me definitely include meeting my fellow EarShot composers Elizabeth Lim, David Marenberg, and Daniel Schlosberg; meeting the mentor composers Margaret Brouwer, Sebastian Currier, and Derek Bermel; and having some one-on-one time with conductor Matthew Kraemer to go over the score. If all goes according to plan, the orchestra will be giving birth to a healthy litter of four new pieces by Thursday night. I’ll be treating these posts as a window into the goings on of the readings, and as a way to get to know the various people involved. As we get going with the week, I’m eagerly anticipating seeing the myriad ways one can approach writing for and working with an orchestra (with four different participants and three mentor composers, we’ll have a variety of perspectives). As a way to exercise my own nerves and demons (and to remind myself how I got here), I thought I’d use this first post to talk about the genesis of my own piece, Bounce.

For me, it was a stretch even writing Bounce: like many of my friends, in the years since finishing graduate school (years that composer Steven Mackey affectionately calls “the lean years…where people are no longer paid to care about your music”), most of the projects that I’ve worked on have been in the realm of solo and chamber works, written for friends who are at a similar place in their careers. A lot of what provides the creative spark for these pieces is my relationship with the particular performer or group: when sketching ideas for, say, a new piece for my friend the bassoonist, ideas for that piece are inextricably linked to that particular bassoonist. In composing that piece, I’m usually helping to coordinate some string of performances for it as well: I might be thinking of the performance space for the premiere as deeply as I’m thinking about my pitch collections and rhythmic grooves.

Managing the various aspects of my life (composing, work, personal relationships, a modicum of physical fitness) is a precarious balancing act of rationing precious bits of time. Even with the healthy living wage that comes with my academic job, I feel a pressure on my creativity to not only maximize the potential of every artistic endeavor, but to engage only in those endeavors that will bring maximum creative and professional benefit. After a few years of writing music to order for various smaller configurations of instruments, writing a piece for orchestra, without a definite performance opportunity (or even a definite ensemble or conductor) felt like a pretty significant, perhaps irrational, deviation from the path I’ve been on in my personal musical wilderness. Even once I established a satisfying pace writing Bounce, the specter of never hearing the piece loomed large in the background.

So, what motivated me? Well, the siren song of what I believe to be one of the greatest cultural inventions of Western civilization: the orchestra. Despite the baggage of a few centuries of repertoire, the politics of tradition, and the economics of reality, I think there is an inexhaustible potential in this resource for new ideas and fresh sounds. The orchestra is a completely different medium than chamber or solo music, a force to reckon with that can be at once monolithically brutal and preciously fragile. The choreography that goes into coordinating sound events is remarkably precarious, the possibilities for timbral nuances are staggering, and the challenge to convey some intimacy in a medium that can inherently be impersonal—if only due to the sheer number of musicians involved in producing the sound—sets a composer up for an interesting ride on the roller coaster of creativity. When considering things from these angles, I can’t help but feel attracted to the drama and adventure of composing for orchestra, like I’m climbing Yoko Ono’s ladder towards “yes.”

With the long break between spring and fall semesters, I had enough time on my hands to write; I also had enough projects lined up on either end of this time so that, if I did have to wait several years to hear this beast, I could psychologically deal with it and focus my attention on other work. Surprisingly enough, the gamble paid off: I get to hear Bounce a mere five months after hitting my double bar line. In this respect, I feel incredibly lucky to have been selected. I’m sure there are lots of reasons that Bounce is being included here, some of which I’ll understand by the end of this coming week, and some of which will remain a mystery. For now, I’m focused on honing in on the details in my score, sharpening my aural reflexes to the music so that I can get the most out of rehearsal tomorrow. In tomorrow’s post, expect details on the rehearsal and editing process, and an introduction to the other composers involved in this week’s readings.

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Stephen Gorbos navigates a wide palette of genres and influences, creating a unique synthesis between styles as diverse as American rhythm & blues, Western classical music, and Javanese gamelan. His music has been performed in concert halls across the U.S. and in Europe by organizations such as the Minnesota Orchestra, the New England Philharmonic, and the Cuarteto Latinamericano. Recent commissions have come from the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, Maryland (Highway Music, for violist Wendy Richman and electronics), and the University of Houston Percussion Ensemble (Push, which was released on Albany Records in January 2012). Active as an educator, Stephen also teaches composition, theory, music technology, and music history, having served as a visiting instructor at the College of the Holy Cross and, since the fall of 2008, as assistant professor of composition and theory at the Catholic University of America’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music in Washington, D.C.