Moving In with the Orchestra

Composer-in-Residence: It’s one of those amazing vocational descriptors, like Executive Producer or Legal Consultant, that’s both too many words (serious research via Wikipedia reveals that composers, producers, and attorneys still exist) and appropriately vague, and often even a misnomer. People who know what it is tend to know exactly what it is. The rest of us have no clue and feel stretched to take interest in knowing the gritty minutiae of someone else’s job (there are obvious exceptions: Special Advisor to the President, Best Boy Grip. I’m intrigued—please, do regale). In the UK, a position with similar responsibilities often goes by the term Associate Composer: associated how exactly, one may rightly ask, but at least our imaginations don’t float quite so easily toward composer bungalows/flophouses in the far attics of ye olde local orchestra halle (“in residence” means different things to different people, I’ve recently found).

The concept of placing someone who creates on the payroll of an organization whose traditional role has been to present and perform is rather new in the world of concert music, it appears. Although the special and rare composer/conductors, like Boulez, Knussen, and Salonen, have maintained a tradition of composers promoting other composers (harking back to earlier eras and personalities including Strauss and Mendelssohn), larger Post-War economic phenomena generally led to specialization and focus at earlier stages in one’s vocational training. Musicians were no exception. The performer/composer in the mode of Liszt or Rachmaninoff, known widely as stage soloist and vital creative voice, seems even more of a rarity on concert stages, but thrives in experimental venues and in musical personalities like Anderson and Monk, Zorn and Ziporyn. Such a separation seems to have contributed to a certain distance between full-time professional composers and performers (orchestras especially) as musical cultures splintered. The rise of specialist new music ensembles, computer/electronic media, and entrepreneurial composers invested in creating new opportunities for performance are all, to my thinking, positive developments, and are grown from seeds planted in the 1960s and ’70s. Today no reasonable assessment of the field could exclude those forces, but those who had witnessed a move away from the orchestra saw the need to create and maintain genuine connections and opportunities for new work to thrive.

My mind goes to the monumentally important Meet The Composer/Ford and Rockefeller Foundation Orchestra Residencies in the 1980s, which essentially brought American orchestras and composers together on a scale previously unheard of. With seed money provided via grants, organizations were able to design programs and commissions featuring one composer for a period of up to four years. Established figures such as Druckman, Perle, and Wuorinen were paired, along with those appointed while in their 30s, like Bright Sheng, Roberto Sierra, and David Lang, with major orchestras all over the country. Some seminal American works of the late 20th century, including Corigliano’s and Rouse’s first symphonies and Adam’s Harmonielehre, are the enduring result. Also notable are the many lasting associations between composer and organization (Adams and the San Francisco Symphony, Rouse and the Baltimore Symphony). In certain cases, including those like Steven Stucky with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Robert Beaser with the American Composer’s Orchestra, composers transitioned from the MTC residency to valued members of an organization’s creative planning team. In this role, composers, by example, have influenced orchestral programming and given voice to the next generation of Americans, providing composers like Derek Bermel and Mason Bates with early exposure; the cycle, nothing less than a miracle, thankfully continues.

I have the very good opportunity to be involved with two different organizations, serving both in the writer-among-actors world that thank heavens is promising to be much more pleasant than for poor Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. For this and next seasons, I’m serving as the first composer-in-residence for the Reno Philharmonic, my hometown orchestra and the first professional ensemble I ever heard. And beginning next season, I’ll serve a two-year appointment as the 7th Daniel R. Lewis Composer Fellow with the Cleveland Orchestra, an ensemble I’ve adored since hearing them live for the first time in 1998, and for whom my respect as an organization continues to grow. Both jobs involve writing pieces, and both involve a whole lot more. The discoveries and surprises I’ve already made/had will certainly affect my music in the future; that itself is a shock to me.

As I’ve prepared for various aspects of my various roles, I’ve spent time contemplating what the essence of this, the larger role of resident composer, really is. Against the backdrop of a thriving regional orchestra in the Mountain West and a major touring orchestra with an international profile, I’m also reminded that the “American Orchestra Model” is more broad than is often spoken of. The symphonies of J. Brahms are important to both ensembles for good but subtly different reasons. Is it that the music of the young S. Shepherd should be as well, or is there perhaps a bigger picture? For better or for worse, composers are advocating more and more, whether for themselves, or for their art, or for art in general. Must the composer be a public figure to exist at all?

Over the course of my residencies, I thought keeping track of my experiences and impressions would be a useful exercise, and I intend to post every few weeks or so. I also hope to cull a thought or two from friends and colleagues who know the terrain of the pre-concert talk or the board meeting presentation, or like me, might be currently scaling those rock walls. I know the toughest part of the job is always going to be writing the music, but…well, now that I’ve come to think of it, that might be the definition of a pretty good job.

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