Author: Ted Hearne

It’s Showtime!

I woke up to snow falling in Minneapolis. I knew the 70-degree-and-sunny weather wouldn’t last the whole week, but we almost got there. Today, though, I’ve got bigger fish to fry and can’t stop to contemplate the snowstorm outside; today, the Minnesota Orchestra will play my music in concert.

Yesterday, they rehearsed my piece Patriot for the first time, and for only 45 minutes. (Some of my fellow composers got even less time.) Yet, they totally killed it—in a good way. The focus and professionalism of this group is truly at another level—something I’ve never experienced and probably won’t for a long time if ever again.

Across the board, difficult passages were nailed on a first reading. My piece has a lot of difficult rhythmic flute writing. Coming into the rehearsal, I was worried about how the flutists would react, and I guess I thought it would take a substantial amount of rehearsal time to get their parts right. Instead, they were just awesome the first time around. For the first time ever, I had to tell the percussionists to tone it down a little bit—they just completely rocked it; I’ve never heard a marimba ring out in an orchestra so brilliantly. It made my heart jump to hear so many people play what I wrote.

Furthermore, the orchestra vastly improved each time they heard a passage. The second time through any passage, the musicians added infinitely more shape and expression—astoundingly, often entirely without any words from the conductor at all. By merely saying “Let’s rehearse it from bar 80,” the orchestra knew what they had to do to make it better—time was of the essence, and all words were chosen very carefully.

Not to sound like a cheerleader, but this program is unlike anything else I’ve heard of. Here, all the ups and downs of composing for orchestra are brought out into the light, and together composers and orchestral musicians are leading the way toward a more communicative future. I am lucky to have this kind of support, and I know the other composers here feel the same way. Aaron Jay Kernis and Beth Cowart have done an unbelievable job making this experience sincerely rewarding.

Listen tonight? We’ll be webcast on Minnesota Public Radio at 8 p.m. central time.

Neatness Counts: Bucking Trends in Orchestra Notation

Bill Holab started his lecture on making exceptional scores and parts by making fun of the notation of Brian Ferneyhough—or at least singling it out as what not to do. Lines run into each other, lots of notes are crammed into a little space, and there are extraneous lines. Of course, you could say that a Ferneyhough score is graphically a work of art in and of itself, or that part of its value is that it confounds and challenges and seeks its own special way to obliterate or subvert the rhythmic grid. But it certainly doesn’t conform to a standard of what is preferable in music notation, and Holab made it clear right off the bat that as an engraver he works to make the act of reading music as simple and easy as possible.

Now, it’s clear that Holab is an engraver at the very top of his craft. He works for all the major publishing companies and also represents self-published composers, and his lectures were extremely useful. However, the more he spoke, the more I thought about the tenuous relationship between composers and orchestras.

Holab made another example of a Golijov clarinet concerto. There are sections where the time signature changes to reflect that a dotted-eighth or double-dotted-eighth gets the beat. So, originally, there would be a change from 3/4 to 2/6 or 4/12 or something like that. Adès does this kind of thing as well. Holab said that he rebarred this section so that the bottom note of the time signature was written as the note value itself, instead of the number representing that value. The clarinet player liked it much better, he said. This seemed to be validation enough, even though Golijov himself liked it better the way he wrote it.

Granted, this is a really small point, and this particular change didn’t perceptibly alter the sounding result of the music, only the way it looked on the page, but this kind of attitude has resounding implications. Holab had an extremely practical point of view about the whole thing—”This is a concerto. What orchestral player is actually going to practice a concerto?”

Here is where I draw the line. I don’t want to write music for people who feel that they are above practicing it. And I don’t care if it’s a “concerto” or anything else—how else can it be a challenging, interesting piece of music if it doesn’t require a little bit of work—technical or conceptual—from the performer?

Along these lines, we also had a wonderful seminar with two percussionists from the Minnesota Orchestra, Brian Mount and Kevin Watkins. These guys were extremely informative and good-natured in their criticism of our difficult percussion parts (admittedly, unnecessarily difficult in many cases). They also made it clear several times that they wanted to avoid creating an environment that was limiting for a composer, and they clearly did really practice our parts—a lot. This was, of course, totally great to see. Heartwarming, really.

One of the composers called for the timpanist to hit the copper bell of the drum, and there was massive resistance to this idea from the percussionists. “I didn’t do it for John Corigliano, I’m not gong to do it for you,” the timpanist was relayed as having said. I understand this mentality, given the price of the drum you’re asking a professional to play in an unconventional, potentially damaging way. However, some string players don’t like to play col legno and some piano technicians won’t let you prepare the piano or touch the strings either. Taking that mentality a bit further, some brass players don’t like to play extended high passages, some bass clarinet players don’t like to play high notes at all, some violin players don’t like to count many bars of rest, lots of classical musicians don’t like playing extremely repetitive music… the list could go on forever. You could say these are unfair comparisons, but one of the percussionists also compared the timpani request to asking a harp player to stand up and kick the harp. The question is: as a composer, where do you draw the line?

By the way, I wouldn’t want to cause any timpanist to feel like he or she is damaging their instrument. But it’s true that Adès calls for this technique in Asyla, and I’d love to know how timpanists deal with this problem. Maybe they use an old beat-up set of timpani. Maybe that should be a reasonable request.

There’s an idea that you need to learn all the rules before you break them. People revert to that adage all the time in music, but let’s think about it for a second. Really? All the rules? Like, the rules that tell you that above all else you must print orchestral parts on 9’x12′ paper? Or that you shouldn’t draw any extraneous lines on a score, or use unconventional time signatures, or ever put text in a box on your score? The rules never really end. Furthermore, obsessing over a mastery of “the rules” can be a great way to put off coming up with some actual original ideas.

You could argue that the two can easily go hand-in-hand, or that our standardized notation practice can accommodate any and all musical ideas and it is thus our responsibility to make it as easy as possible for our performers. And maybe theoretically you would be right. But at the end of Holab’s seminar, a composer who has been auditing all our seminars here at the Institute raised his hand and asked, “So, is it better to write a piece that isn’t difficult?” And he was asking this question with complete sincerity, as if the answer would actually determine the music he then created. This to me is backwards, and proof that the standardization of orchestral and notational practice can, if a composer isn’t careful, hold back musical creativity.

Hello, My Name Is: Harnessing the Composer Network

Ted Hearne

Everyone said this week was going to tire me out. It turns out they were right. It’s not that the hours are that grueling, but they’re packed full of information. Plus, if you’ve ever met me you won’t be surprised to learn that I found time for not one but two beers with fellow composers at lunch; maybe not the best idea given the amount of ideas that flew at us when we returned for the afternoon. Nonetheless, it was a massively enjoyable first day at the institute.

We heard lectures from two incredibly knowledgeable speakers, both experts in their field. Evans Mirageas, artistic director of the Cincinnati Opera and director of artistic planning at the Atlanta Symphony, implored us to adopt the perspective of those in the retail industry, reminding us that networking is an essential tool and then comparing a successful composer website to a successful department store. (Depressing but resonant.) Only you can take charge of building your own audience, he seemed to be saying—not so much “give them what they want to hear,” but “tell them why they can’t afford to miss what you’re offering”. Composer Mary Ellen Childs dropped truth bomb after truth bomb in an extremely helpful seminar on grantwriting, something that has baffled me for years. (Turns out it takes a lot of hard work—that was my problem all along.)

We also filmed short interviews for the Minnesota Orchestra’s website, introducing ourselves and our pieces. This happened early in the day, and was a sober reminder of how important it is to be ready with a focused explanation of what you’re trying to do in music. Clearly, a large part of this whole program is about relating to those who are presenting or hearing your music in a positive way, and learning how to benefit yourself through good communication. And clearly, it sucks to feel that you are not as articulate as you would like to be. (Me: “Yeah man, it’s, like, about music, you know what I’m saying?…word.”)

The highlight of the day, as you might expect, was listening to the music of the other participant composers, five of whom presented their work.

Antonio Carlos DeFeo, a graduate of my alma mater, the Manhattan School of Music, played What’s That I Hear?—a mystifying little song for mezzo-soprano with orchestra, commissioned by the Westchester Symphony and set to the words of an 11-year-old poet. This work glistened with transparent orchestration and a surprising interplay between the vocal line and an electronic part taken from the poet’s reading of his own work.

Justin Merritt played Dervish, recently premiered by the orchestra over at St. Olaf, where he is a professor of music. This was a rousing “concert opener,” brief but exciting, based on the great Sufi tradition of Dervish music. Essentially the entire piece is a gradual and continuous crescendo, an impressive feat that must have been difficult to pull off but a blast to perform.

We got a taste of Andrew McManus‘s Calvary, a song cycle for baritone and large chamber ensemble set to a perplexing collection of texts and described by the composer as an “anti-anti-war” piece. I was sorry we weren’t able to hear the whole thing. Andrew is a student at Eastman.

Wang Lu, just finishing up a doctorate at Columbia, played Siren Song, which bristled in a tight performance by the ever-impressive International Contemporary Ensemble. Although she drew laughs when she admitted, “I like Stravinsky too much,” her music rang out with originality, possessing a driving energy and at times buoyant humor. She has developed a unique musical transformation of Chinese speech patterns using instrumental glisses that pass rapidly around the ensemble. Coupled with her particular harmonic language, this creates a curious and edgy sound.

David Schneider, a recent graduate of Indiana University, played us excerpts from a few works—a choral piece set in Latin and a piano quartet based on the music of the ars subtilior school of the 14th century. The third, Machines for solo piano, dealt with machine-like processes and is perhaps closest in spirit to his orchestral piece that will be played on Friday’s program, Automation.

Ming-Hsiu Yen and I will present our music to an audience of young patrons of the orchestra tomorrow.

Meet the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Bloggers

Here at NewMusicBox, it is once again our pleasure to welcome the contributions of composers involved in the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute (Nov. 1-8). First, let’s meet Ted Hearne. Then continue on to read Justin Merritt’s first post. —MS

Ted Hearne

Ted Hearne is a composer, conductor, and performer of new music. He is originally from Chicago and is now based in New York. He is the artistic director of Yes is a World, resident conductor of Red Light New Music, composer-in-residence of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and his band Your Bad Self recently premiered his newest work Illuminating the Maze at The Stone. Hearne’s Katrina Ballads were premiered to rave reviews at the 2007 Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and recently released on New Amsterdam Records. He attended Manhattan School of Music and is currently working toward a DMA at Yale School of Music.

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It seems like the coming week is laid out as sort of a bridge between composers and the orchestral world. We will have sessions with individual members of the orchestra, attend some professional development workshops, and speak for a few important moments with the orchestra as a whole, all the while receiving valuable advice from Aaron Kernis, the veritable fairy godfather of the project. The whole thing is an inspiring communication of interest on the part of the Minnesota Orchestra—they’re saying, hey this is important; support of new music is important, dialog with composers is important. It’s the only program of its kind in the U.S., and that fact alone begs lots of questions about the state of the orchestra today, which I’m hoping my experience this week will help answer.

It’s an unfortunate reality that most orchestras have so little rehearsal time for music they’ve never played before. Every composition teacher I’ve ever had has bemoaned this hard fact, and indeed it has been written in to the act of composing for orchestras in this country. It seems unlikely-to-impossible that as a composer you will have a real chance to interact with an orchestra for enough time to verbally communicate any new ideas you may want to try out, and because of that, working any experimental impulse into a piece can be a risky affair. “Does it work?” is a question you are encouraged to ask before you’ve even heard your own piece, not after, and certainly not during the rehearsal process.

So as an orchestral composer, is my job to write something as idiomatic for the orchestra as possible? Certainly a piece with standard notation, familiar formal qualities, and a sense of instrumental technique which clearly evolves from a European classical tradition would help make it as performance-ready as possible. And of course with such limited rehearsal time, every second counts.

Or is my job to create something new and challenging, presenting ideas people haven’t heard before, or music that somehow speaks especially to the time we are living in now? In this case, it shouldn’t be off-limits to ask a flutist to focus an inordinate amount of their attention to the quality of their air sound, or to ask a string player to play especially percussively, or to take any player well outside their comfort zone. A composer should be allowed to expect that the musicians playing his or her piece have a working knowledge and respect for music that falls well outside the classical tradition, and it should be okay—even admired—that every sonic result of a premiere performance is not planned out in advance by the composer. For if we’re really trying to make something new, we should nurture a healthy weariness of all “safe decisions”—that’s where the risk comes in.

I guess my question is: Are orchestral musicians into that risk, too? Do they want to play new music, and are they willing to support an ongoing dialog with composers? I think it can demand a whole other skill set—on top of many extremely specialized and enviable orchestral skills, a musician who embraces contemporary music has to be willing to constantly revise their notions of musical language and instrumental approach, each time they encounter something new.

And of course, we composers have to care about them too—make a real effort to understand the practical constraints of the orchestral apparatus and tradition, and attempt to craft something respectful and challenging at the same time. This balance, between the idiomatic and the experimental, is something I hope my experience at the Institute will help me embrace in a meaningful way. Because the orchestra is a beast, a mass, and a time machine—the possibilities are endless if you get them on your side, and the sheer force of that many people playing music in the same room is absolutely visceral. I am optimistic about the future of the orchestra, but I have a lot to learn and I’m ready to get started.