Meet the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Bloggers

Meet the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Bloggers

The Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute (Nov. 1-8) will be a fast-paced experience culminating in a public performance, and this year participants Ted Hearne and Justin Merritt have volunteered to tag-team the blogging duties and share their experiences with us.

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Ted Hearne

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.

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.