The ACO Underwood Readings’ Blog: Musical Guinea Pigs

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Danielle Kulhmann


[Ed. note: The American Composers Orchestra’s annual Underwood readings begin tomorrow, May 21, 2010. We’ve already heard from Tamar Muskal, one of this year’s featured composers, as well as from José Serebrier, one of the participating conductors. Now we’ll hear from French hornist Danielle Kuhlmann. A Seattle native, Kuhlmann has performed with orchestras and chamber ensembles around the world including the Seattle Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, and the Brooklyn and Long Island Philharmonics. Now based in New York City, she is very active in the new music scene, performing in the aXiom and Metropolis ensembles in addition to the ACO.—FJO]


I look forward to the ACO Underwood readings every year. This is a chance for composers to get immediate feedback about their music from a high-quality group of professional musicians. This is the moment when their compositions come to life. I can’t imagine how exciting it must be for them to hear these pieces for the first time!

It is always a challenge for the musicians, too. Reading several new pieces for which there are no recordings, references, or traditions is a difficult experience, but this is also one of the joys of playing new music! We are the first to perform these new works: I can’t help but think to myself, “Will this be the next ‘Beethoven’s Ninth’ someday?”

The readings are also an incredible learning experience for the composers. They have access to an entire orchestra full of musical guinea pigs. This is their time to ask questions and get intelligent feedback. I have had many opportunities through ACO to talk directly to composers and discuss the difficulties (and benefits!) of writing for the French horn. It is a very unique instrument, and in my opinion, probably one of the hardest to write for. While the composer has an aural canvas in his/her ear, they must choose their colors wisely! We horn players are unfortunately familiar with being thrown into either extreme: three pages of rests and whole notes, or six pages of painful high notes, awkward leaps, and impossible fingerings. It is a great challenge to find the middle ground when writing for the French horn—and winds and brass in general. Our instruments have specific limitations, as well as the very intricate muscles we use to play them! It is so, so important for composers to have one-on-one time with players of every instrument in order to help them find this balance in their writing. We want and crave a challenging part, but not unnecessarily so! It is a great joy to play a piece of music that has achieved this artistic and physical equilibrium.

I truly enjoy being a part of this process and being able to participate in the creation of a new piece of art and music! It’s an exciting time for everyone involved, and I’m looking forward to Friday!

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