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?

3 thoughts on “Getting It Right the Second Time

  1. jenny bilfield

    I love the idea of calling first performances a ‘beta test’! Another way into this…In my experience the challenge in getting second performances is a direct result of the heightened fetishism on novelty — on premieres. Press and funding have brought additional focus to this issue — as premieres are rewarded because they’re viewed as risk-taking. I applaud funders who support organizations that commit to multiple performances of a new work, over a period of several years.

    Lo, many years ago when I was running the National Orchestral Association I started a program called “4 Seconds in 90 Minutes” — second performances of American orchestral works at Carnegie Hall. The house was full, we had lots of press and a number of composers at long last had the impetus to revise major works, for which they then received an archival recording. It was exciting to give these works a second go-around in a public forum.

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  2. joelfriedman

    For me the interesting thing you hit upon is process. I agree a certain number of composers do have an often subliminal view – romanticized in my opinion – that our classical works should somehow descend from the mount on stone tablets (Central Casting: can you send Moses up, please?). That’s not to take away from the high level of skill and experience in most composers at all. It’s more that people don’t talk often about revisions, rewrites in this field. Somehow it’s assumed we will get it all right in our latest orchestra piece the 1st time around. Having working in theater, commericial or other, it’s very different. It need not be the cliche of “rewriting the 2nd act overnight…:” but it is assumed that there is a process: one writes, tries it out, rewrites, tries it out, possibly rewrites, and so on. It’s almost a continuation of the sketching part of composing. Does anyone remember a teacher in school ever mentioning this in reference to classical music?

    Not every piece needs to be revised, not ev ery composer works this way, and unfortunately we aren’t given the option of revising and rehearing with so many single performances, but what a healthy way of conceiving of music making! Imagine getting feedback from both the performers and the audience and then reshaping a piece. It’s also a nice way of dispensing with the pressures of the “Masterpiece syndrome” – masterpieces aren’t built in a day. It’s all about a healthy, interactive process.

    A good handful of my concert pieces have really benefitted as a result of this process, of having a second “whack” at it with feedback, more time, and some perspective. I’m not just talking about small adjustments in orchestration etc., but even large-scale questions of form and balance. I enjoy it.

    Joel

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  3. Aeterna

    Agreed!
    This reminds me a lot of an assignment I did for a recent class on creativity. The assignment was to pick a real-life issue that we’d encounter in our career and write about a creative way to solve it. I talked about the hesitance a lot of performers (especially in large ensembles) have to playing new music. During my paper, I mentioned that if my performers were not happy with my piece, I would be willing to make changes if necessary. My teacher was astounded! She was under the impression that composers just didn’t do that. It seems like kind of a silly assumption, if you ask me. I mean, performers have the most practical knowledge of what sounds good and feels good on their instruments, and we composers would do well to pay attention to what they have to say on the matter.

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