Building a Repertoire
Frank J. Oteri: At this point, the “Pierrot plus percussion” ensemble is a 20th-century mainstay, and there is a body of important repertoire written for it, but it’s all contemporary music. You play some of that, but most of what you play are works that you’ve commissioned. So how do you find composers? What turns you on to a composer? What’s the process by which you bring a piece into life for somebody?
Matthew Duvall: It varies. I wish we were organized and systematic, but I can’t make that claim. Really.
Michael Maccaferri: There are some organized aspects to it, but a lot of it’s just chance. We’re lucky in that we get out into the world a lot and we get to hear a lot different people’s music, and meet a lot of different people.
Lisa Kaplan: Matt was talking about when we went to all these festivals in our first summer together. We were at the Norfolk Festival, and that’s where we met Gordon Fitzell. We really liked his music and we asked, “Will you write a piece for us?” And he said “Sure, great, yeah.” And then it took a number of years for that to actually happen, maybe like five or six years.
Matt Albert: Three or four. The score says ’01 on it.
LK: OK, maybe three or four. We also commissioned Dan Kellogg because of Norfolk. The piece that Derek Bermel wrote for us, Tide Shifts, was through the Greenwall Foundation. That was a foundation that called us up and said, “We’d like to have you apply.” There were stipulations; it had to be an emerging New York-based composer. So we decided to apply with Derek and happened to get that.
MD: Usually depending on the situation, there are almost always some kind of limiting parameters, which is helpful, like this New York-based composer thing. We had to narrow it down to people living here.
LK: Jennifer Higdon was someone whom Joan Tower had always been a real advocate for, and we know Joan from Norfolk again, and she’s a great friend. We had wanted to commission Jennifer for a long time and finally got a grant in order to be able to do that. It’s all about finding money.
FJO: So you don’t have people sending you scores?
LK: Oh we do, yes.
MD: And we look at all the material when we can. Sometimes we find really wonderful things that way, but there’s quite a bit, and it’s very hard for us to keep up with that.
FJO: And I imagine as soon as we put this out on the web you’re going to be getting even more.
MD: We do it when we can but it’s just that we don’t know. It’s almost impossible to do in a routine way.
FJO: What’s your usual approach of working with composers once you have a piece in process?
MA: I think that a lot of times, we start out by talking to them about bare bones stuff: the length, the instrumentation, what doubling, and what instruments are you going to write for. And then we tend to leave them alone as much as they want to be left alone. It’s really up to the composer. Sometimes the composers want to come try out things, or e-mail us questions, but sometimes they just want to write, and we’re cool with that. Then when we get the piece, we want the opportunity to just rehearse as well. And again write lots of questions back and forth: “You know; this doesn’t work.” “Do you mean an f-sharp here?” “Is this the tempo?” “Didn’t you mean a quarter note?” Those kinds of things. We like to play for composers when we’ve had a chance to get close to the internalization that Tim was talking about. Hopefully we’re on equal footing with the composer who knows that piece really well.
LK: We like to develop our own interpretation to the point where we ultimately feel that we’re going to own that piece, which is not to say that other people shouldn’t play it. They should. But just that, this is our interpretation; this is how we’re doing it. We like to be at that point when we try to present it to a composer, which isn’t always the case, but ultimately that’s the goal. And then we’re totally open to changing things, and I think the composer’s usually very open to that as well, if you’ve gotten to that level for them to hear it.
MA: And ideally we like to play a piece for the composer in advance of when it’s going to be performed. I remember when the Naumburg Foundation commissioned George Perle to write us a piece. We ended up playing it for him for the first time in the afternoon of the world premiere. So that’s not an ideal situation.
LK: That’s not ideal. He was very gracious.
MA: He was great.
MM: He’s such a great composer. The score was crystal clear. I’m sure you know George’s music. He’s very precise. And of course that made our job that much easier, too, to an extent.
LK: He knew exactly what he was going for.
FJO: George Perle said in our talk with him on NewMusicBox that if a student’s score didn’t have clear articulation markings for every single note in the score, he would hand it back to his student and say “You didn’t write the piece yet.”
FJO: The flip side of this, though, is do you ever wind up getting a piece from somebody you commissioned and that you’re really excited about, that doesn’t quite work out?
LK: Sure. Yup. That happens.
MD: Not everything can be a great fit. It could be the quality of the work we received, but it could also just be…
LK: The aesthetic?
MD: …No, the fit between us and the piece. It’s not always a good pairing. We’ve played things that I’m sure are going to be played much better by other performers who feel like they can embrace it in a way that we were not able to. That’s just different personalities. The pieces that live in our repertoire are the ones that we really feel like we can own. We develop an interpretation and it’s so convincing to us that it just feels very natural and right. The pieces that don’t stay in our repertoire are not necessarily bad pieces, just things that didn’t quite work for us. It’s impossible to generalize.
FJO: Has there ever been a piece that just didn’t work to the point that you didn’t want to play it?
MD: Well, I don’t know about that.
Nicholas Photinos: Not that we ever refused to play it. Even pieces that we didn’t necessarily care for, once we got them, we always did the required number of performances. We feel an obligation in that regard. That’s not necessarily a commentary on the piece. I liked what you said: It’s just that we didn’t respond to it in a way that we hoped. One thing that we often say is that you commission the last piece the composer wrote, but you’re going to get the next piece.
LK: I remember we had commissioned someone and had specifically told this composer that we wanted an encore piece that we could play at the end of our programs, a kind of really virtuosic and fun knock-off. And he decided to totally not adhere to that in any what. He wrote a piece that needed a click track and amplifying and all this stuff. It was just like: “Wow, that’s so not what we thought it was going to be.” And it’s not to say that we hated the piece; we didn’t by any means, but we couldn’t tour it because of all these logistical problems, which is why we had asked for what we asked for.
MD: We had a need in our program for something and that’s what we asked for. The unfortunate thing is that by not giving us what we knew we had a place for in our repertoire, he gave us something that we are not able to take out to the public. We played it our contractually obligated X number times, and then we had to put it away, the primary reason being that we just didn’t have a way to place it on a program.
FJO: When you commission pieces, do you commission them with temporary exclusivities?
MA: Usually we have a year or two or something like that. And usually some kind of exclusivity for recording as well. But we do want other people to play our pieces. I love hearing developed groups playing pieces that we commissioned. But we just want the first dibs.
LK: Nick’s gone through the grant application part.
NP: Oh boy.
FJO: In terms of interpreting pieces that are already in the repertoire, it was very exciting to hear you guys do the Steve Mackey piece, which I know and love. This is now the third recording of it, and that’s very exciting. There are now three quite different interpretations of it out there. And having access to three very different interpretations really allows for someone to understand the piece better, the way you would, say, a Haydn quartet. So do you actively seek out older repertoire as well? How does that happen?
LK: Often we’ll learn something if we are going to a festival and they’re going to have a composer in-residence. We’ve done that in Cincinnati before Frederick Rzewski wrote a piece for us. We went ahead and learned some of his other pieces, so we also could make a CD. Steve’s piece was something we learned because we were going to be together with Steve at a festival at UC Davis and then also at Norfolk. So we just said, “Well, why don’t we learn something that he’s already written.” And we listened to a bunch of things and we really liked that piece. I think it just sort of depends. There’s so much music out there.
Tim Munro: There was something exciting we heard in the car.
MA: It’s a piece called Arpège by Donatoni, and I heard it done by ICE for a radio show in Chicago and loved it. It was a great piece and so we talked about it.
FJO: Getting back to Rzewski and that entire disc you did of his music, to date, this is the only time you’ve devoted a whole disc to one composer. How did that happen? What made you decide to focus so closely on one person?
LK: We knew that we wanted to record Pocket Symphony, that piece that he wrote for us and that Matt had done this arrangement of Coming Together. So we needed one more piece. We had always talked about playing Les Moutons de Panurge. Then it was easy to say that if we learned that, it would also make a really good CD.
FJO: And that piece also gave you the design concept for the cover.
MD: Fred’s music is extremely diverse. But he’s one of those very rare composers, Crumb, I think, is another one, where there was only one person that could have done it. It’s not something we planned, but, as Lisa suggested, we found ourselves learning repertoire over time and accumulating enough minutes of music for a disc. And then we looked at that repertoire and it wasn’t just like we slapped it together. Those pieces are varying enough and interesting enough together programmatically that it’s a really good disc that happens to be by one composer. That’s how I think of it. I don’t feel like we forced the music of one composer onto a disc to have that one-composer disc.
NP: It’s just that these are three pieces that we really enjoyed playing, and we thought that makes a disc. That’s great.
FJO: Getting back to what works and what doesn’t, you’re extremely diplomatic to say that the pieces aren’t necessarily bad; they just don’t work for the group. I think that’s a very healthy attitude to have. But it begs the question, what are the kinds of pieces that work for you? What are you looking for in a piece? What are the kinds of things that make it an exciting dynamic for the six of you to interact with each other?
MM: I don’t think there’s an answer.
TM: It’s very important to make good programs.
LK: That’s true.
TM: As a general rule, the group doesn’t do one-composer concerts. It’s important to generate really balanced and interesting programming that’s exciting and diverse. I think an important part of it is to find that block that fits in that chunk of the program.
NP: It really is like a puzzle or like organizing a five-course meal or something. You don’t want to eat all-meat courses. We talk about food all the time.
TM: I like meat.
NP: Some people may like to eat meat all the time, but maybe the audience doesn’t.
LK: I also think tastes definitely evolve and grow over time, and I do think that at the beginning, when we first started playing together and commissioning composers—you know we’ve always been really committed and composers would recognize that—so for instance the piece that Dan Kellogg wrote for us, I feel like he knew that he could make it whatever he wanted because we would devote the time to learning it. So he wrote whatever he wanted to write, and it’s a big virtuosic piece. I feel like some of the earlier pieces are about that: lots of virtuosic stuff because this group will actually rehearse it and hopefully will sound really good. And so I think because that was happening for awhile, then we got down into the phase where now we needed contrasting pieces: more ambient, more moody, more evocative. Gordon Fitzell’s piece definitely fits into that category. We didn’t necessarily ask for that, but that’s what we got.
MA: Like Nick said: “You don’t get their last piece; you get their next piece.” I think we’re always looking for our next piece, too. Everything we’ve done up till now does not indicate what we want to do in the future. It indicates what we’ve done. And we want to do the next thing, so that’s hard to figure out as well.