The 2009 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog: Down to the Orchestral Wire

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Spencer Topel

It’s November, which means it’s time for the annual Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute (November 17-22, 2009. And it is our pleasure once again to host a blog by one of the Institute’s participating composers. So this year we welcome Spencer Topel whose prose began for us has begun to start flowing a little bit early as he gives his anticipatory impressions of the activities that are about to transpire in Minneapolis next week.

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Spencer Topel currently lives in New Hampshire. His music has recently appeared on concert programs in major venues such as the Chiesa di Santa Caterina Treviso in Venice, Italy, the American Modern Ensemble, the 2008 Aspen Music Festival, Aspen, CO, Chigiana Festival in Siena, Italy in 2007, at Alice Tully and Weill Concert Halls in New York, and in Tokyo City Opera Hall. In addition to composing music, he is a lecturer and researcher at Dartmouth College, where he teaches electroacoustic composition in the Digital Musics Program. His interests include Music Information Retreival (MIR) with an emphasis on rhythm, and music perception and cognition.

Be sure to keep checking in on these pages as Spencer offers us an inside peek into this year’s Composer Institute. —FJO

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Next Tuesday the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute begins…yikes! Time flies as they say. I’m still sitting in disbelief at the proximity of this event as I write this in the cozy trappings of my New England cottage.

With only days away, my thoughts turn to a recent visit with composer Robert Beaser. We talked about this upcoming event and also about Incendio, the work to be premiered next week. What transpired was a possible revision to the end of the work. A relatively small change, yet a change nonetheless. At this point I feel that the revision is more than necessary for a composition that has consumed so much of my energies. Still, I can’t help but wonder: is it really necessary for the first performance? It might risk annoying the conductor, Maestro Vänskä, the orchestra, and everyone else. Or not. This, of course, represents the risks of composing for orchestra: where not knowing the answer to a question in a rehearsal can reflect poorly on you, or lacking nuance with everyone you interact with can result in unforeseen consequences.

The allure is overwhelming. Every composer who writes for orchestra understands the exhilatory rush from hearing his or her work performed live by an orchestra, which can sometimes hopefully be followed by a coveted recording of an orchestral composition as well. Henceforth, new doors open. Legitimacy can be established, which with any luck can be followed by bountiful opportunities. For many professional composers, getting it right the first time around can make or break their career.

The Minnesota Orchestra describes the participating composers as “emerging.” I find this word choice interesting because the journey or the ascent towards attaining a career in composition is simultaneously treacherous and exciting. I recall a private conversation I had few years ago with a previous participant who, upon the completion of the institute, asked Artistic Director Aaron Jay Kernis the pervading question: “How do we keep what we have here going?”

The answer is not simple. Various fledgling composers will fantasize about the proverbial “break” that will propel their music, persona, and talents into the stratosphere. But the opportunities come few and far between. The constant struggle for young composers to gain performance experience can be disheartening, often leading to a crash and burn ending without proper support, nurturing, and passion for creativity.

When an unparalleled opportunity like next week’s concert presents itself, naturally one has to consider how to cope with the expectations. Perhaps it is enough to consider that the other six composers Fernando Buide, Geoff Knorr, Angel Lam, Kathryn Salfelder, Carl Schimmel, and Roger Zare, are probably sharing similar sentiments. To quote the concise encouragement of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, “Go on being curious!”

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