Blogging the 2011 ACO Composer Readings: The White Elephant
ORCHESTRA. The white elephant in the back of my mind, the blank line in my catalogue. I’ve scoffed at the idea that orchestra experience is required for Serious Composer status and had conversations with friends about the possible irrelevance of writing orchestra music in today’s downsized scene, but secretly, writing for orchestra has always been a fantasy of mine. What composer doesn’t want to be in charge of such a huge machine of sound? Who hasn’t had the experience of being bowled over and knocked out by it—Thomas Adès’s Asyla, the end of Erwartung, Beethoven, Mahler, Ravel, Varèse?
I’m absolutely thrilled to be involved in this round of ACO readings, but also fairly apprehensive. In lots of ways over the last year or so I’ve gained a decent foothold over my professional and artistic life: I’ve worked up a personal vocabulary of vocal and instrumental writing after many years of co-directing an ensemble; I successfully defended my dissertation 48 hours ago, decisively ending my eleven year stint of higher education; and in a few more months I’ll age out of all those under-30 “young composer” competitions, effectively ending my youth. And yet, as far as orchestra writing goes, I’m a complete babe in the woods. I’ve come to regret the fact that I never learned an orchestral instrument —as a vocalist and pianist, I missed out on an opportunity to be a cog in the machine, an experience that must be so valuable. It seems logical to assume that the only way I can learn how to write for orchestra is to write for orchestra. No amount of Lachenmann score reading—or Haydn score reading, for that matter—is going to teach me as much as hearing each of my decisions triumph or fail or morph into some aural reality I never would have expected. And that’s always been the conundrum: how to “try out” orchestra writing? That’s why programs like the Underwood Readings are so vital, and why whatever mortification I might endure from miscalculations or editing errors or just plain bad ideas will be absolutely worth it.
Tonight I head down to Issue Project Room to perform some of my music on their Darmstadt Institute series, where I’ll be doing lots of extreme caterwauling, tossing props around, scraping metal with thimbles on my fingertips—in my element, in other words, totally comfortable and in control, confident in every detail. Tomorrow at nine sharp, I’ll be a complete beginner again, doctoral status notwithstanding. I’m prepared to come with an open mind and a humble spirit, to watch, listen and learn—from the mentor composers, from maestro Manahan, from my fellow participants, and, most of all, from the music.