Blogging the 2011 ACO Composer Readings: Making It Real

[Ed. Note: The second round of the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings, involving music by six composers, takes place tonight, Saturday, June 4, 2011, but already the eight additional composers participating in the ACO's Jazz Composers Institute Readings, which take place on Sunday and Monday, are getting anxious to hear their music. One of them is Harris Eisenstadt—FJO]

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Harris Eisenstadt, photo by Peter Gannushkin (courtesy Christina Jensen PR)

Very much looking forward to this weekend’s ACO Readings. I have many concerns as far as how the rehearsal process will go and how the orchestra will deal with my piece, but I admit I’ve been trying not to dwell on them since submitting my final score and parts. Nothing I can do about it now except get in there Sunday morning and hear what they have to say. When you sit with a piece for a year at some point you start to lose a sense of what it would be like to actually hear living human beings play the notes on the page. I work with Sibelius 6 but don’t have much of a sample library, so even a sense of how sections will balance is somewhat skewed in my imagination. While most of the original material was sketched on piano, I’ve been tinkering with it on the computer for months. I hear all the parts in my head, and I’ve heard them endlessly in Sibelius’s playback… now I’ll actually get to listen them come to life. Amazing.

I anticipate the orchestra will find my piece quite playable for the most part. There are some challenging sections rhythmically, and there will be balance issues for sure, but I tried very deliberately to make the parts clear. One of the enduring ironies/lessons from last summer’s JCOI intensive had to with extended techniques and the orchestra. While extended techniques are of course part of orchestral writing, it seems counterproductive to overburden an orchestral score with endless notations for each note. We studied some beautiful (sounding and looking) scores by Ligeti, Penderecki, Xenakis, Lachenmann, Grisey, etc… but I admit I was left with the sense that for my purposes, the more direct I could make my piece the better. We only have five minutes to work with, and we have one quick rehearsal and then the reading. Though I admire the incredible detail one can get into, there’s a fraction the amount of rehearsal time with an orchestra compared to what one might get with a chamber music ensemble. So hopefully I’ve made things as streamlined as possible. We were fortunate to have the members of Wet Ink take us through the vast catalogue of contemporary techniques for each instrument last summer. I was stunned by the saxophonists’ catalogue of multiphonics, the pianist’s jaw-dropping virtuosity, etc. I suppose one of the moments I took to heart the most from the various demonstrations was when my friend trombonist Jacob Garchik implored us to “Give the trombone some fast runs.” This stuck with me and, while my trombone part is far from unplayable, there are a few choice passages that I hope will challenge the ACO trombonists.

I’m particularly excited to work with George Manahan. I was blown away by the clarity of his conducting at New York City Opera’s Mondoramas concert a few months ago at Lincoln Center. My piece is essentially organized in a fast-slow-fast form, and I think what may actually prove the most tricky is the slow section. I can’t wait to see how Maestro Manahan takes them through it. After a fast opening minute the strings find themselves in a slow hocketing ostinato. Though the individual parts are not terribly difficult, the way the hocket grooves is kind of elusive, so we’ll see. I’m also eager to hear how the percussionists decide to split their parts. I gave them a percussion score because they’ll be sharing some instruments, and there will be some choreography to figure out. I actually scaled the percussion part back quite a bit from earlier drafts on the advice of a mentor composer. What began as overwritten percussion parts ended up turning into underwritten parts for awhile. Hopefully the final parts have ended up full enough to be supportive and prominent, but not overbearing… after all, this isn’t a percussion concerto (A project for the future, I hope). There are also a couple short solos for French horn, English horn, tuba, and contrabassoon which I’m excited to hear. More soon!

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