EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 1: Climbing The Ladder Towards Yes

[Ed. Note: Last year, the Buffalo Philharmonic held a reading session of works by four emerging composers as part of EarShot, a national program that helps orchestras coordinate such readings. We’ve previously featured participants’ accounts of this vital program; most recently composer Michael Rickelton wrote about his experiences during the 2010 EarShot readings with the Nashville Symphony. This week the Buffalo Phil is about to embark on a second series of EarShot readings just one year after their first foray into the program. They’re actually the first orchestra thus far to participate in the program twice and plans are already underway for them to do a third series of readings in 2013! So given all this activity in Buffalo, we asked Stephen Gorbos, one of the four participants this year, to share his adventures there with us.—FJO]

Despite having arrived at my hotel in the late evening, I’m completely wired for our first day of the EarShot Readings with the Buffalo Philharmonic. The orchestra goes into labor at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow: along with a first rehearsal of the piece, tomorrow’s highlights for me definitely include meeting my fellow EarShot composers Elizabeth Lim, David Marenberg, and Daniel Schlosberg; meeting the mentor composers Margaret Brouwer, Sebastian Currier, and Derek Bermel; and having some one-on-one time with conductor Matthew Kraemer to go over the score. If all goes according to plan, the orchestra will be giving birth to a healthy litter of four new pieces by Thursday night. I’ll be treating these posts as a window into the goings on of the readings, and as a way to get to know the various people involved. As we get going with the week, I’m eagerly anticipating seeing the myriad ways one can approach writing for and working with an orchestra (with four different participants and three mentor composers, we’ll have a variety of perspectives). As a way to exercise my own nerves and demons (and to remind myself how I got here), I thought I’d use this first post to talk about the genesis of my own piece, Bounce.

For me, it was a stretch even writing Bounce: like many of my friends, in the years since finishing graduate school (years that composer Steven Mackey affectionately calls “the lean years…where people are no longer paid to care about your music”), most of the projects that I’ve worked on have been in the realm of solo and chamber works, written for friends who are at a similar place in their careers. A lot of what provides the creative spark for these pieces is my relationship with the particular performer or group: when sketching ideas for, say, a new piece for my friend the bassoonist, ideas for that piece are inextricably linked to that particular bassoonist. In composing that piece, I’m usually helping to coordinate some string of performances for it as well: I might be thinking of the performance space for the premiere as deeply as I’m thinking about my pitch collections and rhythmic grooves.

Managing the various aspects of my life (composing, work, personal relationships, a modicum of physical fitness) is a precarious balancing act of rationing precious bits of time. Even with the healthy living wage that comes with my academic job, I feel a pressure on my creativity to not only maximize the potential of every artistic endeavor, but to engage only in those endeavors that will bring maximum creative and professional benefit. After a few years of writing music to order for various smaller configurations of instruments, writing a piece for orchestra, without a definite performance opportunity (or even a definite ensemble or conductor) felt like a pretty significant, perhaps irrational, deviation from the path I’ve been on in my personal musical wilderness. Even once I established a satisfying pace writing Bounce, the specter of never hearing the piece loomed large in the background.

So, what motivated me? Well, the siren song of what I believe to be one of the greatest cultural inventions of Western civilization: the orchestra. Despite the baggage of a few centuries of repertoire, the politics of tradition, and the economics of reality, I think there is an inexhaustible potential in this resource for new ideas and fresh sounds. The orchestra is a completely different medium than chamber or solo music, a force to reckon with that can be at once monolithically brutal and preciously fragile. The choreography that goes into coordinating sound events is remarkably precarious, the possibilities for timbral nuances are staggering, and the challenge to convey some intimacy in a medium that can inherently be impersonal—if only due to the sheer number of musicians involved in producing the sound—sets a composer up for an interesting ride on the roller coaster of creativity. When considering things from these angles, I can’t help but feel attracted to the drama and adventure of composing for orchestra, like I’m climbing Yoko Ono’s ladder towards “yes.”

With the long break between spring and fall semesters, I had enough time on my hands to write; I also had enough projects lined up on either end of this time so that, if I did have to wait several years to hear this beast, I could psychologically deal with it and focus my attention on other work. Surprisingly enough, the gamble paid off: I get to hear Bounce a mere five months after hitting my double bar line. In this respect, I feel incredibly lucky to have been selected. I’m sure there are lots of reasons that Bounce is being included here, some of which I’ll understand by the end of this coming week, and some of which will remain a mystery. For now, I’m focused on honing in on the details in my score, sharpening my aural reflexes to the music so that I can get the most out of rehearsal tomorrow. In tomorrow’s post, expect details on the rehearsal and editing process, and an introduction to the other composers involved in this week’s readings.

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Stephen Gorbos navigates a wide palette of genres and influences, creating a unique synthesis between styles as diverse as American rhythm & blues, Western classical music, and Javanese gamelan. His music has been performed in concert halls across the U.S. and in Europe by organizations such as the Minnesota Orchestra, the New England Philharmonic, and the Cuarteto Latinamericano. Recent commissions have come from the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, Maryland (Highway Music, for violist Wendy Richman and electronics), and the University of Houston Percussion Ensemble (Push, which was released on Albany Records in January 2012). Active as an educator, Stephen also teaches composition, theory, music technology, and music history, having served as a visiting instructor at the College of the Holy Cross and, since the fall of 2008, as assistant professor of composition and theory at the Catholic University of America’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music in Washington, D.C.

One thought on “EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 1: Climbing The Ladder Towards Yes

  1. Dave Girshoff

    Interesting perspective on the day before tomorrow—and the myriad influences that have led to now. Very eager to hear what Day 2 is like.

    Reply

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