Honey, We Need To Talk…
The following is a true story, though certain names and places have been omitted to protect the innocent (or the guilty, depending on your point of view).
Not too long ago, I found myself in an exciting situation. I was to premiere several new compositions by different composers through my involvement with a certain event. Everything was going swimmingly preparation-wise, except for the fact that a week before the performance one of the pieces had still not arrived. Finally, with six days to go, I got the score, which was a duo with another instrumentalist. Let me be completely honest: this was one hard piece. Not only my part, which took the saxophone on a guided tour of the outer reaches of difficult, but also the other player’s part, which looked like a Xenakis score had mated with a piece from Ferneyhough’s catalog. So we had six days until the concert to 1) learn our parts individually and 2) put them together in a convincing fashion.
Although the task at hand was certainly daunting, I was mildly aroused by the proposition. Then something quite inconceivable happened. While rehearsing the piece the day before the concert, the composer became extremely irritated and upset with our performance. I’ve blocked most of the experience out of my memory, but many of the comments were along the lines of “When one person has quintuplets and the other has septuplets, they’re not lining up properly,” “Yeah, um, the second section, where the fives metrically modulate to threes, is a little under-tempo,” and “Why are you having such a hard time with that saxophone part? So-and-so could do all that stuff in a different piece.” Ahem. Perhaps so-and-so had more than four days to learn his part. Perhaps so-and-so didn’t have four other new pieces to prepare at the same time. And—though I’m just guessing here—perhaps so-and-so wanted to strangle you just as much as I do right now.
Now, I like playing hard music, but learning hard music takes time. The situation described above is one example, albeit somewhat extreme, of something that could have been avoided with some good old-fashioned communication. In this instance, I would have assumed that our best effort would have been sufficient, but apparently that wasn’t the case. There was definitely a tense vibe in the room, but the other musician and I held our tongues while receiving our tongue-lashing, knowing that making a scene would not do anything to help remedy a deteriorating situation. Still, here we were giving the music our best effort despite the fact that the deck was clearly stacked against us, and this was the result. Was this situation avoidable? What was this composer thinking? Honestly?
I’ve collaborated with a fair number of composers, from the young emerging kind to the seasoned veteran kind. It’s a role that I delight in. It’s exciting for me to be a part of the creation of new music and to be the conduit for a composer’s vision. This is usually quite an enjoyable experience because most times the composer actively engages me in the creation of his or her piece—asking me to demonstrate things, like what the saxophone can and can’t do, what things I enjoy doing, what unique sounds I can make that might not be in that orchestration manual, and so on. Sometimes they ask me to improvise or to play some pieces that I think are a good representation of the saxophone’s capabilities. I like this. It shows me that even though I’ve chosen to work with them because I want to have their voice represented in the saxophone repertoire, they’re equally as interested in infusing their piece with a bit of my personality and playing style. It’s a textbook tenth grade biology example of a symbiotic relationship.
There are also the composers who don’t actively engage me in the creation of their piece. There’s always an initial communication—”Want to write me a piece?” “Yeah, sure!”—but I’m unsettled by the number of times when that’s where the collaboration ends, a time when it should really be just beginning. Why does this happen? It’s always a mystery to me. There’s no cookie cutter way to ensure that all collaborations move along perfectly—there are so many real life variables that can work their way into any situation—but there are a few guidelines that can help composers and performers have the best possible and most rewarding experience together.
With the vast amount of orchestration books and pedagogical manuals available, it’s easy to see why a composer might not feel the need to speak exhaustively with their performer—perhaps the composer might even feel like they’re bothering the performer by asking them questions that could be looked up in a book quite effortlessly. In my experience, this has been one of the biggest factors contributing to a well-intentioned collaboration turning a bit sour. It’s important that composers and performers maintain open communication lines from the beginning.
Such books and manuals are good sources of information, but they can also be extremely dangerous. Many are outdated and don’t reflect advances made in instrumental technique with regard to even things as obvious as range. For example, Walter Piston’s famous Orchestration (1955) lists the alto saxophone’s highest playable pitch as a concert Ab. Since Piston’s manual was published, not only has the saxophone evolved to include a key that allows it to play a half step higher, but modern players have now become so adept and facile at the instrument’s altissimo range that performing an octave above the Ab in Piston has become commonplace. It’s also important to keep in mind that some manuals, especially those written by accomplished and respected players of their instrument were written with an agenda. If I wrote a book like that, you can be sure that I’d make a persuasive case for all of my favorite tricks and techniques to help shape the direction of the saxophone’s repertoire. (Note to self: Write a book like that.) Along those same lines, many such books have way too much information. Be skeptical of that 200 page book of multiphonics rather than salivating over the possibilities.
The bottom line is that no book can replace some quality face time with a performer. Take that time to go over some ideas and expectations with regard to the specifics of the instrument and your compositional goals. Ask the performer for a sample of techniques you’re interested in using—have them demonstrate them for you, ask them to burn you a CD and give you some scores in which they feel the techniques are used successfully. If extended techniques are your bag, ask your performers to sit down and make a list of everything they can do. Also request that they make a sample recording so you have a sonic reference guide. As a matter of fact (and performers take note here), it would be great if all performers came with a personalized handbook with an accompanying CD that demonstrated the range of their instrument, its technical possibilities, all the extended techniques they have mastered, as well as any specific individual or unique sounds or techniques they can play. Laying out all the cards on the table from the get go will make the entire process extremely smooth and enjoyable on both ends.
Here’s an interesting statistic: one hundred percent of the time, the music by the composers that I’ve worked with closely is not only the best, but also the most fun to play. This is not only because by collaborating intimately they understood both the instrument’s and my own idiosyncrasies, but more often than not, through the collaborative process we also forged a friendship. If nothing else, that personal connection with the composer informs and enhances my performance of their music.
When composers finish a piece, their hard work and toil is ending, but for the performer it’s just beginning. Performers need time to learn new music. The performer was not reading over your shoulder while the composition was being penned, so although you are intimate with the piece and all its intricacies, the performer isn’t. We need time to absorb a new piece, both technically and musically. Most all the new music I’ve premiered presents all manner of new technical situations and digital demands—a far cry from predictable and formulaic passages in “older” music that could be studied, practiced, recognized on sight, and then performed with pinpoint accuracy even on a first read through. It takes a little time for a performer to 1) train their fingers to navigate new and foreign technical passages and 2) ingrain those passages to the point where they become comfortable enough to begin bringing out the music that they contain. I’m always uncomfortable when I receive a new work and the composer wants me to read through it for them a day or two (or even sight read it right then and there) while they sit inches away from me. And that’s just the technical side of learning a new piece. Then there’s also the matter of the getting comfortable enough with the piece so that the performer can give it a real voice and life, beyond simply playing the notes and hanging on for dear life. My goal as a performer is always to communicate the piece I’m playing to the audience to the best of my ability, which invariably works out a lot better if I’ve had a chance to let the piece mature. Think of it like whiskey. Now ask yourself if you’d prefer an Early Times performance or a Basil Hayden’s performance.
Give the performer(s) a day or two to look the piece over. Even just a couple days will probably give them the opportunity to work through the piece from beginning to end a few times and note anything that could possibly need to be tweaked in terms of the instrumental writing, as well as give them a general sense of the scope of the composition. Take this opportunity to talk to the performer and ask them what they think. You are the composer, but try to remain open to editorial suggestions and make sure you’re both clear about your expectations regarding the time it will take for a really outstanding performance. When a performer only has two weeks to prepare a new piece you may still get a professional quality performance. But if a performer has, say, a month to prepare, the resulting performance will probably be closer to the musical and emotional experience the composer envisioned.
New music performers do not shun difficult music. Quite the contrary, we’re generally eager to dig into new pieces, especially ones that take us into uncharted territory musically as well as technically. Performers spend years working to be in complete command of their instruments and all their faculties. If they’re working with you, chances are good that they’re not looking for a quick and easy way out of learning your piece. Most performers I know, myself included, are excited to work through new technical difficulties and challenges they’ve never encountered—stretching boundaries enables instrumental progress—but there are certain things that are simply not possible or that just don’t work or sound good on a particular instrument. In these instances, deferring to the performers’ expertise is important.
If composers feel a little trepidation about being so conversant with their performers, it’s understandable. In Western art, we often operate from a “great man” theory of creation, so perhaps there’s a bit of a feeling of I-don’t-need-you-to-tell-me-anything-about-writing-my-piece at play when there’s a communication breakdown between performer and composer. But performers understand the composer’s role: Without composers, we wouldn’t be playing. And, although I’m speaking for myself here I’m pretty sure many other players feel similarly, I really enjoy working with composers closely throughout the entire process. It’s interesting for me to observe a composer’s thought process firsthand, which, even when I see exactly how it’s done, never ceases to amaze me. So if after the initial communication, the composer simply goes back to the lab with a pen and a pad and doesn’t emerge until a completed piece has been produced, I feel kind of shut out. I want to be a part of the process, not to meddle with the composer’s ideas or force the direction of the piece, but just to be a consultant along the way.
In the real world there are all sorts of things that could throw off even the best laid plans, but this is about trying to make that world a more comfortable place for both composers and performers. New music itself tends to be complicated; but there’s no harm in trying to make its creation and performance a little less so. Communication seems to be the key.
Saxophonist Brian Sacawa is active internationally as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician. His most recent CD, American Voices, is available on the innova record label. He currently lives in the lush rolling asphalt slopes of Bolton Hill in Baltimore.