Blogging the 2011 ACO Composer Readings: Getting Beyond a First Rehearsal

Day one down. I’m happy to report lots of clarifying moments, a fantastically high level of commitment and control from George Manahan and the musicians, some nice comments from the small but friendly audience, and a completely endurable level of mortification.

In a pre-reading session meeting with the Underwood New Music Readings team this morning, the participant composers were helpfully reminded by a mentor composer that we’re all winners already just by being selected for this experience—at which point a second mentor composer empathetically allowed that, despite this fact, we’re all apt to feel like losers at some point before the weekend is through. This is the psychological pitfall of first rehearsals: at first hearing it’s impossible to accurately gauge whether some moment or other isn’t working because it needs more rehearsal, because it needs a compositional tweak, or because it doesn’t work. Add to that the fifty-plus moving parts factor of the orchestra and the stressful intensity of a readings session, where hearing anything more than three times total is an improbable luxury, and you’ve got a set-up for some serious composer anxiety.

We were all prepared for this, though, and I can’t imagine things going much more smoothly. In my case, I heard lots of things to marvel at, and lots of things that I would change in a hypothetical second performance. (Winner Moment = overlapping waves of density coming across in slow section! Loser Moments = redundant mute markings! Virtually impossible flute tremoli! Inhumanly brief time allowances for instrument changes! Etc.) Our post-partum session with the section leaders was good-natured and informative, the mentor composers gave instructive technical advice (with somewhat ominously frequent allusions to the discussion of aesthetic issues scheduled for Sunday), and morale among my talented fellow participants was high. Given that tomorrow night’s reading will be even shorter than today’s, the errata sheets must be kept to the clearest essentials, which in some ways alleviates the pressure: no one’s asking us to come up with the best possible versions of our pieces by 10am, only of the best possible versions that can be performed under the circumstances. Given that those circumstances involve the people it does, I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

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