Tag: revision

Compromise and Conviction at the National Composers Intensive

“This is a piece that does something to you when you play it,” says Christopher Rountree. He’s about to conduct the ensemble wild Up in a performance of a new work by Jennifer Hill, a composition student at the University of North Texas. Entitled in memoriam my liver*, the piece demands that the trumpet player (in this case, Jonah Levy) hold a high C almost continuously for five minutes at a nearly inaudible volume, encircled by hushed, furtive gestures from the rest of the ensemble. It’s a risky gambit—“it’s incredibly physically and psychologically demanding for the performer,” conceded Hill—but one that pays off.

wild Up in concert at the Regent Theater. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

wild Up in concert at the Regent Theater. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

This was just one of many memorable moments at wild Up’s May 30 concert at the Regent Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The event was the culmination of the National Composers Intensive, a program organized by the LA Philharmonic that invited ten young collegiate composers to write for wild Up, as well as attend various rehearsals, masterclasses, and concerts along the way. Hill was one of these selected composers, along with Daniel Allas, Emily Cooley, Natalie Dietterich, Patrick O’Malley, Jose Martinez, Anna Meadors, Laura Schwartz, Andrew Stock, and Wei Guo. All the works were read and recorded by the ensemble, with a few chosen for performance on the final concert.

While readings of student works are not uncommon in the new music world, the Intensive was unusual in that composers had multiple opportunities to hear and revise their works. After composing an initial draft, wild Up recorded read-throughs of the pieces that allowed the ensemble to give video feedback to the composers. After two weeks, the composers submitted a second draft, and during the week of the concert, last-minute changes could be made between rehearsals before the final reading.

National Composers Intensive fellows Emily Cooley, Laura Schwartz, and Wei Guo. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

National Composers Intensive fellows Emily Cooley, Laura Schwartz, and Wei Guo. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Some composers took advantage of this opportunity to make significant revisions to their works. Martinez, a master’s student at the University of Missouri, wrote the salsa-inflected Illegal Cycles, combining piano montunos with aleatoric figures and heavy metal influences. He removed layers of material from the score before the final reading to make the complex grooves more approachable for the ensemble. “During the final rehearsal it came to life…the groovy Latin vibe takes some time to marinate in the brain,” he acknowledged.

Dietterich, a master’s student at the Yale School of Music, received feedback about articulation and added considerable detail to her work Something Twisted before the final reading. O’Malley, a master’s student at the University of Southern California, also made cuts to certain parts in his work Ouroboros and added mutes to the brass to balance the ensemble in certain sections. Allas, also a University of Southern California student, made significant changes to the notation in his composition smear’d. Allas originally used a system of stemless noteheads and dotted bar lines to indicate the approximate placement of notes, while the ensemble favored notating these gestures as complex rhythms. Eventually, he removed the dotted bar lines but kept the stemless noteheads, a compromise that satisfied the ensemble. “wild Up committed fully to the notation style that I settled upon,” said Allas.

wild Up director Christopher Rountree in rehearsal. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

wild Up director Christopher Rountree in rehearsal. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Other composers were more obstinate. Stock, a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, conceived of Roots, Bone, Skin, Ghosts (2) as a set of interlocking parts without a traditional score. “I got some pushback about the layout of the printed materials, but that’s the way they ended up playing it and it worked out,” said Stock. Hill’s high C was a similarly fought-for moment. This is one area where the Intensive distinguished itself from the typical new music reading format. In programs with a single reading session, interesting things often get sacrificed at the altar of practicality, and composers learn to dial back their ambitions. Here the exact opposite was true. It’s easy to imagine a less intrepid ensemble refusing to take these risks, or even sabotaging the performance with surliness, but to their credit, wild Up played these composers’ works with utter conviction.

Alongside the works by Allas, Dietterich, Hill, and Stock, wild Up programmed two works by slightly older (post-emerging? pre-established?) composers Andrew Tholl and Nina C. Young, as well as Public Kaleidoscope by Andrew Moses, a student of the LA Phil’s Composer Fellowship Program for high school composers. Together, these works represented three generations of young(ish) composers. Notably absent from the program were any of the usual suspects when it comes to old guard, established composers, and to be honest, their presence was not missed in this context. All of the music was original and well-crafted, and the students’ works held their own alongside the works of their more experienced counterparts.

View from the stage. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

View from the stage. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

The Intensive was also cleverly planned to coincide with LA Phil’s Next on Grand festival of contemporary music, which allowed the fellows to attend several concerts, as well as schedule masterclasses and lessons with composers James Matheson, Julia Wolfe, Steven Mackey, Michael Gordon, Sean Friar, and Caroline Shaw. In the small amount of free time remaining, the students were able to experience a little bit of local culture. “I also had some very good tacos in downtown LA,” said Stock.

* The full title is actually in memoriam my liver subtitled i hate that you’re stoned all of the time subtitled Coldness and Cruelty: The Art of Masoch subtitled I have dozens of titles subtitled $1 lone star and i;m sry=

Revise THIS!

revisionsWhile revising a composition for large ensemble, I’ve been contemplating this question: Why is revising often so much more difficult than just creating a brand new work that resolves the same problems? This revision is killing me, causing me to expend much more time and effort than if I had simply composed something wholly original for the same ensemble.
I decided to pose this question to composers on Facebook and received some interesting responses, each of which sheds light on a different aspect of what makes revising such a slog. Stacy Garrop comments, “Once you pull one string, it all starts to unravel…”—and it is quite true that each new revision creates its own set of problems. Perhaps this is just an extreme form of the old adage that beginnings are easy, but that they create consequences down the line that make crafting a satisfying middle and ending quite the challenge. When revising, we’re often working around an even more restrictive set of decisions (all the things we want to keep) and making any change might have vast ramifications on the experience of the entire entity.

Keith Fitch points out that it would be great if composers had the luxury that playwrights do, “where every premiere is considered a dress rehearsal.” It’s a great observation that there’s something quite artificial about the idea that music should be turned in somehow just right on the first attempt, which might be one of the more insidious assumptions inherent in well-meaning “professionalism.” Workshop programs like those hosted by the American Composers Orchestra, choral groups like Volti, and chamber ensembles like ICE do much to encourage a more sensible approach in which experimentation and feedback are central to the creative process, rather than leading the composer to sometimes hedge his or her bets and settle for what is “safe”—the American Composers Orchestra even calls their laboratory program “Playing it UNsafe” in order to emphasize this very point.
Daron Hagen draws attention to the craft involved in pulling off any revision with panache: “The hardest and most thankless achievement, achieved almost exclusively through extensive revision, is the appearance of effortless inevitability. This is perceived by all but the most perceptive colleague, listener, or critic, as facility.” Extensive revision is a big part of the musical theatre culture that is Hagen’s wheelhouse, and I watched him revise three orchestral interludes that are part of his recent opera Amelia when (during a dress rehearsal) it was determined that there needed to be louder music during some set changes in order to blot out the racket! All composers should be as musically fit and prepared for these situations, but Hagen is right that revising works is much more a part of certain musical genres than others; composers working in concert music (where revising is more optional rather than the norm) could do well to emulate the steel nerves of composers who write for the theatre and lyric stage.

Finally, Kevin Puts provided perhaps the most telling analysis of just why revising can often feel so laborious and boring to a composer’s psyche: “I think it’s because you are not traveling into uncharted territory (which is exciting) as you were when you wrote it; it’s like going back to look for the watch you dropped somewhere. You don’t really want to be there.” Agreed, composers are always looking ahead to new projects and rare is the composer who truly relishes revision, which normally happens more on a need-to-do basis rather than in the spirit of waking up one morning, putting on a pot of coffee, rubbing one’s hands together, and gleefully exclaiming “Hot dog! Time to painstakingly retread through some hard-won accomplishments while taking care not to shit the bed and make the piece even worse!” Even for those who have the experience and temperament to derive some satisfaction from a well-executed revision, the process of revising definitely sets off different and perhaps less expansive emotions than brainstorming a new, heretofore unimagined composition.

What has your experience been with revising music? And how would you compare it to that of composing original material?

Developing an Act

In speaking with other composers, there are always so many questions I’d like to ask them about their music and how they went about putting it together: What were you thinking when you wrote this passage? What kind of stylistic influences informed your writing? Under what circumstances was the work conceived? However, if I were allotted only a single query for these situations, I’d make sure to ask the question that most consistently seems to reveal a composer’s fundamental character, namely: What is your attitude toward revision?

At the most basic level, there is a broad spectrum of approaches when it comes to tinkering with a “finished” notated piece, between those who endlessly tinker and those who (for various reasons) end up relatively content with their composition’s first incarnation. Sometimes the composer’s skill and the amount of time he or she had to work with have something to do with the decision to revise, but more often is has to do with the composer’s attitude and aesthetic predilections. Many composers are predisposed to tinkering, or simply have very high expectations for how closely their musical result ought to approximate their idea. Many know they likely won’t have time to revise, and approach the first draft accordingly. Some composers are not disposed to revising in general, but will consider it when something truly “goes wrong” or the prospect of more performances tempts a little finessing.

Yet the above attitudes toward revising apply to just one particular situation: that in which a composer intends for there to exist a final, “best” version of a given composition.

This is, of course, the situation in which many composers find themselves—especially composers whose goal is a document than can inspire performances with or without their own physical presence. But what about improvisers, singer-songwriters, composer/performers, DJs, and many for whom the distinction between revising and composing becomes almost meaningless?

It goes without saying that improvisers, DJs, and their ilk make tweaks all the time—it’s just that without the pressing need for a “definitive” version of the work, these tweaks become part of a continuous composing session rather than something appended to the compositional act.

While a notated composition forces us to choose our “best effort”, those who follow a favorite DJ, jam band, or even comedy act would attest that there’s also something to be said for a style of expression that is less rigidly controlled and is constantly adapting to the situation at hand. At the same time, music expressed through a notated score can potentially receive many more performances in more diverse geographic locations—something that still makes this old-fashioned mode of dissemination pretty hip.

As someone who spends a lot of time working with traditionally notated music, I’m always eager to bring ideas from folk and improvised sources into play—and to bring notated concert music up to date and in line with the level of excitement, timbral richness, and interactivity that makes the best pop music so engaging. Developing an act is about experimenting and responding to experience, and one that emphasizes the process of exploration as much as the discoveries; most of all, it’s a way of working that takes audience feedback into account as an essential part of the creative effort. So I wonder if it might be possible to develop a notated ensemble piece in a way that is likewise constantly evolving and defined?

I’ve recently completed a work that will be premiered more or less simultaneously by three piano trios. Based respectively in Boston, Toronto, and Salt Lake City, the groups will tour with the piece during the 2012/13 concert season. Knowing these details, I decided that I wanted a way to make each group’s performances unique and particular; so I wrote a piece in the form of several very short “modular” movements that can be played in any order—this is determined by each ensemble, who may settle upon a “favorite” configuration or change things up for each performance. Over time I’ll put new movements into rotation, so that the “building blocks” of the piece change to reflect my current thinking and audience input. It’s a kind of “act” developed over time with input balanced between myself and the performing ensembles, who each may continue to shape the work in profound ways long after the premiere performances.

It feels good to be revising some music for once not because of a mistake, but as the next step in an ongoing creative collaboration. When I was younger, I shied away from revising after imbibing the notion that making changes to my work indicated weakness or failure; but now I’ve realized that my work needs to grow, change, and react to stimuli from audiences and collaborators in order to truly be its best.