Day One: Too Good To Be True?
Sitting on the flight from New York to Minneapolis, on my way to the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute, life does indeed seem too good to be true. Still, I wouldn’t be true to my neurotic self if I didn’t follow up this moment of peace with a few bad memories of writing my first major orchestral piece, These Worlds In Us, a year ago this month.
My own experience writing for the orchestra included a small forest of staff paper, more ink cartridges than I care to remember, a coffee pot I didn’t turn off for two months, a paranoid trip to the doctor (convinced I had stomach cancer), the terrifying realization that I was becoming reclusive and insufferable in the eyes of my family and friends, a full-blown nervous breakdown, and, at the premiere by the Yale Philharmonia, enough joy to make me forget the terror and insomnia of the previous two months.
I’m not exaggerating about the nervous breakdown; in struggling to write this piece I felt completely overwhelmed by the formidable canon of orchestral music. I grew up worshipping Beethoven and Stravinsky, and with heroes like that it’s easy to become one’s own worst enemy. How could I possibly contribute to this tradition? How do I write for 80 musicians at once? My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability; how does this translate to an orchestra? What’s the range of the glockenspiel? What do I do with the English horn??? And, oh my god, the-deadline-is-in-a-month-and-I-haven’t-even-started! It wasn’t until I was ready to give up on composing and revert to my back-up plan (astronaut) that I finally stepped back into reality and, miraculously, was able to write.
I’m not exaggerating about the joy either; in writing for the orchestra, a composer is lucky enough to contribute to a tradition of life-changing, heartbreakingly beautiful music. And let’s face it—who doesn’t want the chance to make a lot of noise in a huge hall?
For me and eight of my colleagues, the hard work and insomnia has finally paid off. We are in Minnesota for a week’s worth of intensive workshops, lectures, and rehearsals, culminating in a performance of our works by the world-renowned Minnesota Orchestra. This program is the only one like it in America, and includes an entire concert of orchestral music by participants, one-to-one meetings with the conductor Osmo Vänskä, workshops with individual players, and lectures about everything from grant-writing to creating parts to copyright law.
Minnesota has always seemed to me to be an oasis of support for composers; at a time when funding for the arts is shrinking and composers are informed daily that their art is “dying,” composers in Minnesota seems to thrive. In addition to the Composer Institute, Minnesota is home to the wealth of resources that is the American Composers Forum, as well as groups like the Minnesota Commissioning Club. (That’s right, it’s a club, meaning that commissioning new music is their hobby…unbelievable!) I’m inspired to stop whining, figure out what people in Minnesota did to make new music the hip thing to in invest in, and bring this energy to other cities. In a particularly inspired moment, as we walked to the gate in the airport, I asked my good friend and fellow composer Anna Clyne why we didn’t all live in Minnesota. “Because it’s bloody freezing,” she replied, without missing a beat.
As we descend into Minneapolis, I have a lot of (neurotic) questions. In an age when composing and listening is a largely solitary activity and composers are more often than not writing for small ensembles and one-man electronic bands, where does the orchestra fit in? Is the orchestra out of date? What does the future of this music look like? Who are these other young composers writing for the orchestra? Did they worry about stomach cancer? If I can begin to answer these questions anywhere, it’s here in Minnesota, bloody freezing and all.