Getting It Right the Second Time
How many of us lament not getting the second performance of a work? We sweat for months, sometimes years, over a piece, only to find it gathering dust after its premiere.
In discussing this with a friend of mine who is a performer and a regular commissioner of new music, she commented that she felt composers look in all the wrong places for repeat performances. Before shopping it around, she felt composers needed to first go to the players who premiered the piece and get their honest feedback about what worked and what didn’t in the music. She also commented on how frustrating it can be to raise the money to fund a piece and then put months of preparation into it, only to discover upon performing it that it needed some adjustments in order to be a playable, successful work. However, time after time, she felt she wasn’t allowed to give any commentary on what could be done to the actual piece to facilitate its chances of getting a second hearing. Thus the music would sit in her ensemble’s library, frustrating both the performers and composer because her group did not perform the piece again.
So, is our inability to get performances our fault? Do we give lip service to our respect for performers, only to dismiss them like yesterday’s news? Do we wine and dine them, but not listen to them? What is it that gives so many of us this blind spot?
Ironically, as a composer, I have experienced the opposite. I am one of those composers who thrives on performers’ input, and jokingly call my premieres “beta tests.” But many times I have encountered performers who look at me dumbfounded when I ask for their suggestions and opinions. Some look terrified, others stupefied, and some with contempt. It is as if I had asked them to fly to Mars—they have never thought of saying what they thought about the music out loud.
Perhaps it is more complex than simply blaming performers’ or composers’ communication skills. When talking to one composer, he suggested it is more a problem of the infrastructure of how we teach and perceive music coming from the classical tradition. Composers and performers are not taught to speak out to one another during the rehearsal of a new piece. They do not learn the art of give and take. Thus classically trained musicians tend to think that once the double bar is written, the music is permanently fixed in that final form. In other art forms this is not the norm. Authors have editors, playwrights have directors, choreographers work with dancers to revise their dances. And film? Rent any DVD and you get an idea of how many options directors try and toss from watching the outtakes. Even in the visual arts, painters and sculptors sometimes tweak a work after it has been shown to the public.
With other music genres this is not even an issue, but somehow composers and performers coming from the classical music tradition still have reservations about letting a work evolve into its final form. So has something in our training indoctrinated us to treat our music like it is the literal word of God? Do we need to rethink how we treat premieres so that we can hear our music again?