Blogging the 2011 ACO Composer Readings: I’m Hooked!

Well, I’m hooked! Hearing an orchestra play your music is basically just as awesome as I always suspected it would be. Something I hadn’t quite anticipated is just how much the performance would improve from Friday’s reading to Saturday’s: on Friday I got to hear my piece twice, and even between those two read-throughs there was a significant leap up. But yesterday night I was amazed to hear it sound like a completely different piece. This had partly to do with the changes I decided on making overnight (the musicians were surprisingly gracious about letting me scribble extra notes into their parts twenty minutes before showtime), and partly with the stakes-raising presence of an audience, but mostly it was just due to Mr. Manahan and the musicians making the transformation from parts into whole in an unbelievably short period of time. Some of the other works sounded great right out of the gate on the first day, but given my somewhat more abstruse sound world (and no doubt a few rookie errors of orchestration), it took more time for mine to come together.

Looking back, one of the things I appreciated most about the whole process was the uniqueness of the concert experience. I’ve been living mere blocks from Miller Theatre for the last seven years, but never made it to one of the ACO reading sessions before—often because of schedule conflicts, but also from an uneasiness about the prospect of seeing a fellow composer squirming in the hot seat while some kind of train wreck unfolds onstage. When you’re in a rehearsal that’s not going well, the last thing you want to worry about is the reaction of spectators, and the possibility of failure just seemed so high. On Saturday night, though, every single piece went really well, and I found myself valuing the chance to share not just the music with the audience, but also the nuts and bolts and sweat and tears that go into putting on a concert. The new music world needs disinterested supporters in order to survive—fans who aren’t themselves composers or players—and maybe we can win people over by showing them what kind of inspired work goes into a premiere, how rigorously focused and attentive all involved need to be in order to make the music happen. There were lots of great moments when the fourth wall came crashing down: when Mr. Manahan requested to redo a certain passage because of a loud cough in the audience, I couldn’t help but hope that the coughee might consider enduring a few seconds of discomfort next time before letting loose in the middle of a grand pause. And while it’s hard for anyone other than the composer and the musicians to attend to tiny details, it was fascinating to hear real-time tweaking bring things out of the music that had been struggling to come through before.

After the concert we headed to a nearby restaurant for the after party (I leave to your imagination the results of putting two dozen composers in a room with an open bar), and Sunday morning the mentor composers and participants met for a final discussion session. This was the promised “aesthetic issues” seminar, and was made more interesting by the fact that the six pieces covered a pretty wide range of styles and musical/conceptual concerns. (The one criticism received by every composer was for having a crappy title. I’m considering reverting to “Symphony No.1.”) All of the mentor composers, themselves a fairly diverse lot, had great, perceptive comments to make about each piece, from the detail/technical level (be wary of mid-register piano) to the conceptual/structural (be wary of the jarring nature of real silence). Each of us left with an inked-up score and a bunch of percolating ideas. I can’t wait to get my hands on the recording, fire up the old audio editing software, and put together a version of the piece I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear when I finished the score over a year ago.

All gratitude to Mr. Manahan, the players, and the ACO staff, and best of luck to the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute folks, going through their own Day One at this very moment.

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