My Job, My Life

One of the things I’m starting to realize about orchestra commissions (he noted smugly): they’re a lot of work. Before the piece, after the piece, work. The absolute worst is during the piece. You put down your work (on the piece) to pick up some work (for the piece). And then leading up to the performance, the steady work. The several emails an hour kind of work (by then, others are at work on the piece). And THEN…

It’s all over, and they are still working. Onto next week’s show they must hustle, which also has been on the books for years and there’s lots for them to do.

Every commission is different. But with a large organization there are a lot of people…wait for it…working on our behalf. Do remember: it’s not their piece that’s getting played. No need for them to get their fanciest suits cleaned—they’re busy backstage or front of house. I checked “@nyphil.org” in my Gmail account to take a quick peek at some numbers. I’ve met or been in email contact with some 25 staffers (not including one musician) at the New York Philharmonic, including the entire Artistic Administration staff, much of Marketing, several in Public Relations, all of Publications, the Personnel Manger, Operations Mangers, and all of the Librarians (even with some while they were on tour in January). Phone calls while in Nevada over Christmas, lots of sending large files via YouSendIt while I was writing the piece in Canada. The New York Philharmonic and I have exchanged more than 300 emails. At the end, I get a CD that will be dear to me indeed. They don’t seem to get much of a break, let alone contemplate the end.

And this is the best part: many of the conversations started with the approximated sentiment: “We have an idea, and we’d love to know if you’re interested in discussing…” How could I possibly not be interested in discussing whatever it is, when it’s the commissioning body that’s coming up with the ideas that aid my cause? Ideas for promotion: YouTube. Ideas for marketing: MixTape CD giveaway on Facebook. Ideas for final thoughts: FlipCam. None of them were even close to being mine. From what I’ve seen, it’s an organization that is embracing a “go get that new audience” attitude as well as any, without altering the prestige of the brand. The young, confident, intelligent staff in the Communications and Marketing departments seem to be chomping at the bit to do their part, and they see CONTACT! as an ideal place to enact an out-of-the-(mail)box approach. It’s worked for the present: Friday night tickets for CONTACT! are getting harder to come by, but I’ll venture that following these new avenues—the New York Phil is on Twitter. I’m not surprised, although even one year ago, I’d never have imagined—and others as they come along, make their biggest payoff in the slow churn. In one year, maybe 30 new subscribers. In ten, dream big. Maybe a hundred times that—the sky’s the limit with free social media, right?

In the end, it’s about being professional, in the best sense of the word. It’s what I really like about all this work. Digging around for answers, getting it right, going back and forth with several good options. Collaboration, consensus, continuous revision. Although such events could describe an artistic partnership, it also describes the process that Eric Sellen, the publications editor of the Cleveland Orchestra, and I had on creating and printing program notes for a new piece of mine that they performed. It took about three weeks and about 20 emails, and since I knew that having a beautiful result in hand at the concert would be a given, I enjoyed the whole process for what it was. Not that I don’t like being an amateur/liebhaber: doing it for the joy of doing it. Writing pieces for friends, putting on concerts. But doing it for joy makes for low motivation when the joy’s not there. People get busy, they drop out. I was also a student for several centuries, and became a little too used to those systems of motivation (coaxing with peanuts, threatening with grades), and often find that outside that rubric, many students simply aren’t motivated to be artists. Simply put, I find that I’m enjoying working with people who have a job. I feel immediately encouraged to respond professionally, and feel a kind of security in knowing what’s expected of me: no less than my absolute best. By the time I arrive for the piece to be performed, I already have lots of friends in the building. It’s amazing how quickly a feeling of trust in those we collaborate with bears fruit.

Some pretty spectacular fruit has been brought forth this week in rehearsals with the musicians. I’ve had a lot of rehearsal time (more than four hours!) and that process—going from the first reading (where all the pieces are there but the puzzle doesn’t yet fit right) toward a thing far beyond what I was capable of imagining by the end of the week—is my favorite part of being a composer. For a musician, it’s the daily grind, but for me as a composer, it’s pure magic, the miracle drug that keeps me from looking for a new job. But I know this high has to get me through my daily grind for many months to come. That sense of trust that I worked to build by writing the absolutely best piece I could muster and by working very hard on making parts that help, not hinder, their efforts is especially gratifying when the group is a bit smaller. My piece is for 17 players, and I made efforts to meet them all the first day. Over the week, our work has only gotten more personal. Phil Smith and Chris Lamb, the orchestra’s longtime Principal Trumpet and Percussionist, both came to find me yesterday, and we chatted about balances and fiber mutes and low crotales when bowed. The engaged attitude of the players—consummate professionals—is icing on the cake, and only serves to heighten my sense of connecting the music I wrote with the people I wrote it for. Although the concerts are a natural and obvious way of bringing the experience of this commission process to an end, I love the rehearsal phase—watching the flowers grow—the most. We spent the last 30 minutes of my dress rehearsal with the players in charge: “Alan, I’d love it if we could try that transition at….” Fine tuning an already wonderful sound, it was chamber music with an orchestra.

The first story I ever heard about Alan Gilbert was now several years ago. I don’t remember if he had been named to the Music Director post yet or not, but he had come to do a week with the orchestra and the rep included the Ligeti Violin Concerto. It was one of those stories: he’d done Ligeti before but never this piece, was very busy in Sweden, something with the publisher… Anyway, he didn’t get to see the score until a few days before the first rehearsal, but by the time he showed up in New York on some red-eye flight, he really owned it and worked brilliantly with the orchestra, drawing them out and encouraging those extra efforts that are required on such a difficult but worthy score. I assume it’s mostly true, but even if it wasn’t, these are the kinds of myths composers should be spreading about the still relatively rare young conductors who make new music a priority, simply because they’re interested in it. At a quick lunch yesterday between rehearsals, while discussing CONTACT! with several of us, he sat back and reminded himself, “Can you believe we’re doing seven premieres this year? Even I can’t always imagine it.” I hadn’t met him until last week, and it was obvious to me what put him in his Philharmonic post in five minutes. His musicality emanates from his body and gestures in concerts—that I’d seen. He was prepared and relaxed, knew what to do where at that stage of rehearsal, and worked quickly and efficiently.

Now that we are into the final stretch, Alan and I are humming at a special wordless frequency. It’s my piece, and it’s his score—he owns it. We float along in music: I wrote the best damn piece I could write, and he’s doing the best damn job he can do. In the first rehearsal, I started making notes, only to realize that within minutes, I was crossing them out again! He was saying everything I was thinking, and the musicians responded like a Maserati doing 165 mph on the Autobahn. Now after two more, they’ve carried the piece beyond my conceptions—my three months of experiments in the silent lab. Frankenstein fully is realized, the monster lives!, and his name is These Particular Circumstances.

It’s amazing how our thoughts, perceptions, and emotions regarding the exact same object change over the course of time. After the initial pop of excitement, I began to get nervous about this piece. Very nervous. I felt the pressure build as I saw the others who were commissioned, went to press events, started getting contracts with deadlines in them. It started to get bigger and bigger in my mind. I also began the harrowing transition from 13 years of student life toward something completely unknown while packing some heavy baggage, like $83,530 of student debt (payment due please), and no present need to be anywhere specific for the first time ever. I started feeling the ground slip away and realized I was way out on one of those cliffs where Wile E. Coyote might find himself. I understood that a misfire piece, while not a good prospect, surely wouldn’t mean the end of Sean the composer, but I became determined to find my personal definition of a bulls-eye. The piece became my grand salvation and distraction, and by the time had come for me to write it, I understood that if I wanted to keep writing music under any circumstance like this for a long time, this piece had better be all I had to give. If not my best work, certainly my best effort. I felt that I was writing for my life.

3 thoughts on “My Job, My Life

  1. Lisa X

    Sean, thanks for the great posts! As a musician working in a totally different world than you it is fantastic to hear about some of the details of how your field works. Please keep it up, and good luck.

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and detailed account, Sean! I hope to meet you in real life sometime.

    Reply
  3. seanshep

    I just now signed up to post comments–I guess I’d never left one before!

    Lisa and Dan, thanks. And right back at you, Dan. I can’t believe we haven’t run into each other already!

    Reply

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