The Back Story

“How did that come about?”

That’s the hot question on the lips of many people I’ve discussed my New York Philharmonic commission with since it was announced more than a year ago. Sometimes I detect a dash (and sometimes three cups overflowing) of envy or cynicism in a colleague’s tone, but just as often, I don’t. Young composers and their allies all know that getting our music played means getting it in front of sympathetic eyes, be it a conductor who will perform it or an established composer who will promote it. Some young composers have the benefit of a publisher or an agent, making use of both a brand and an efficient and trusted promotion mechanism to do their bidding. But one thing all composers, including myself, slowly begin to realize in the rather slow, often-wrenching transition from wide-eyed kid to seasoned pro is that art imitates life: it’s just not fair.

And how could it be? There are no standardized test scores, no equations with which we can prove our point, and looking at history doesn’t help. Our favorite stories about artists are the saddest; words like “asylum” and “pauper’s grave” get thrown around. “Mendelssohn was too comfortable, and look what happened…” It’s not a career for the weak-of-heart and, now as ever, the numbers are against us—there are more trained composers than there are full-time professional composer jobs (however one might define it, teaching or not) and the ground periodically shifts underneath our feet. So, as we emerge from our studies and have to start making some big decisions about our direction, we start looking for a lifeline to pull us out of the cold ocean of student debt and networking with the disinterested at post-concert receptions. And then come the darkest thoughts: how did that guy get the lifeline I was reaching so much higher and better for? We start to forget our pledge of allegiance to the United States of Meritocracy, stop seeing the cream rise and become true cynics while everyone else is clubbing on Saturday night. Eventually, we hear from our siblings that mom is getting worried about us again. We own that quarter-life crisis—bought and paid-for. We’ve learned to call it life.

I’ve been there. I’ll be there again. So when I catch a little whiff of the old “WTF?” vibe when talking about an essentially secret (and certainly murky) process, I understand and sympathize, and sometimes have to do my best not to take a rare lack of manners personally. And after all, it’s a valid question: How did I or anyone on the list of composers in CONTACT!‘s first season get chosen?

I can only discuss my circumstances with regard to the process that led to my being asked to write a piece for CONTACT!, mostly because I don’t know anything about anybody else’s, beyond what’s been said publicly. Marc-André Dalbavie and Matthias Pintscher, two of the most experienced and sought-after orchestral composers in Europe (each with a big toe in American waters), were chosen first to spearhead each program (and my sense is that, due to their busy schedules, things had be moved around to accommodate the Philharmonic commission). The other five of us are, in a word, eclectic. Each somehow connected to America. If there are stylistic lines to cross, our music seems to cross them. If there is a deeper thread that connects us, I’m probably not the one to see it clearly. Of course we don’t represent everything: we’re but seven composers, each with his or her work cut out for us in merely representing ourselves. Whether or not each of us was an obvious choice seemed not to be the question, and in the end, that might be what makes the first year of this series interesting.

In 2008, the email marked “urgent” that started my process with the commission came from Magnus Lindberg, now the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence, writing to describe a “a potentially very challenging proposal” and to begin getting things ready to send to Lincoln Center within 24 hours. I jumped! I was in Berlin at the time and spent a lot of euros on FedEx (who wouldn’t?) to get it sent. Then I waited. I had waited before, but this time six months seemed longer than usual: a move back to the States, traveling, working on other pieces and projects. Although I’d hear the rare potentially encouraging hearsay from people outside the organization, I’d accepted that they wouldn’t be asking me to write a piece. Then, in late September of 2008, came another email: “Please contact the New York Philharmonic at this number at your earliest convenience.” Although I was at my desk when I got the email, I gave it an hour. That too seemed longer than usual. What I later realized was that a lot of people, Alan Gilbert included, were really doing their homework: asking questions, listening and planning, making a whole season fit and work together. These things take a lot of time.

To me, the most interesting part of the story is not this stage (invested though I was in the outcome), but in how I met and came to know Magnus, and how he came to know me. In the summer of 2007, I went the U.K. to attend a program started and run by composers Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen (now joined by Magnus and the cellist Anssi Karttunen) known affectionately as the Snape Course (after the locale of the Snape Maltings, which Benjamin Britten raised the funds to convert into a concert hall for his Aldeburgh Festival). The composers Thomas Adés and Julian Anderson were members of the first class (and, as a result, both quickly found wider attention, as have many other younger British composers) of the program, which runs every two years. It’s small, short, and very intense. Essentially: write a piece for 18 players, which will be performed in a week. I need not get into the gory details, but there were lots of dramatic moments that week for each of us, writing a few new pages per day while sitting in rehearsal to hear yesterday’s pages. Each new rehearsal required a new set of parts. Some composers churned out seven-minute pieces. I barely got four minutes done in time, running into the dress rehearsal with pages still hot from the laser-printer.

While I believed that Magnus was seeing me at my absolute worst, he, Colin, and Olly knew that by turning the heat up outside—deadlines, parts, players, plenty of warm hand-drawn East Anglia local beer every night—they were getting to us at a stage in the process that composers usually hide: composing. Making decisions, setting priorites, using our skills, dealing with people, dealing with our limitations and expectations, making sacrificies, delivering a product. Perfect or not, we were working. And while looking over our shoulders, they provide a blanket of support and encouragement. It was a kind of painful exhilaration, and if it was indeed a very long audition, it worked: I like to think I understand why Magnus felt he could trust me with a challenging proposal such as the pressure of a commission from the New York Philharmonic at the ripe old age of 30. He knows me and what I can do pretty well.

Jumping far ahead, my first New York Philharmonic rehearsal was at once amazing and completely expected. Players apologized to me, that since it was a reading scheduled before the normal rehearsal week (an act in good faith to serve our difficult scores that I found very touching and a good omen) that they weren’t as prepared as they would like to be, and then proceeded to blow the roof off their solo here or there. It’s an amazing group, but is that news to anyone? My hopes for the rest of the week are now even higher.

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