To close out our experience in Buffalo, we spent around three-and-a-half hours with the mentor composers picking through our scores and the revisions we made, making some attempt to evaluate the successes and failures of our efforts. This was the session where the gloves came off: we all felt like this was the most pointed criticism we had received from them to date. What made this different, and a bit more personal perhaps, was that the mentor composers were finally commenting on and asking questions about aesthetics. Most of the comments prior to the last read through had more to do with the mechanics of orchestration: whereas on days 1-3 someone might look at your cello ostinato in terms of how it sounded in a particular moment in time, today it was very much about the effectiveness of the cello ostinato over the form of the piece, or, should we even be writing cello ostinatos. (To be fair to our mentor composers, we weren’t talking about something as basic as cello ostinatos: much of this conversation actually centered around the aesthetics of quotation and allusion.)
Though some personal biases definitely shone through, the words of our three mentors were still very supportive, and I do think that in most cases they were definitely working with us to plunge deeper into some idea or concept that we ourselves had articulated. That said, it seems to me that while there are some objective truths about timbral combinations, it sometimes just comes down to subjective personal taste. In that everyone was being so candid, it was interesting to watch these three heavy hitters occasionally disagree with each other: it’s a testament to their professionalism and self-confidence that, despite some differences of opinion, a collegial and friendly tone was kept throughout. I should also add that I think that it was really generous of them to treat us this way: all of us have heard “great piece—lovely” enough by this point in our brief careers. How useful is a generic complement, even if it feels good because it comes from someone you admire? Having some experience as a teacher now at Catholic University, I can recognize how difficult and mentally taxing it is to tell a student, particularly one that’s doing something different than you, what you really think of how they executed their intentions. While it certainly has something to do with the mix of personalities in the room, I think that this level of comfort being achieved also has a lot to do with the unique program that the American Composers Orchestra staff has put together.
The EarShot readings are an incredibly unique opportunity for emerging composers to hear and work on their orchestra pieces. Simply saying that a great orchestra read our pieces would be an oversimplification of it, though: at the heart of the EarShot experience is dialogue—ialogue between a composer’s ideas, an ensemble of quality musicians, and several different sets of eyes and ears, all determined to make this a very solid experience. What makes it an instance of, to borrow a line from the ACO’s website, “the best orchestration lesson ever” is several trips around the circle of dialogue I described above. Given all of that dialogue over a compressed amount of time, perhaps “an orchestration lesson on steroids” would be a more appropriate summation. (Hopefully the next person I show my revised score of Bounce to won’t accuse me of doping.) And, added to that, are the efforts of the various seminar presenters to show us the very practical ways, through community engagement, that one can gain entry into the orchestral world at a local level. So, while we were brought to Buffalo for the privilege of having an amazing group play our music, great pains were taken to show us how we could possibly interact with a world like this one in our own communities.
In addition to the mentor composers and workshop presenters that I’ve typed about at length in these posts, a big thank you needs to go out to four individuals I haven’t mentioned yet who were really the architects behind this amazing EarShot experience: on the Buffalo side of things, Dan Hart, executive director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and Robin Parkinson, director of education for the Buffalo Philharmonic; on the American Composers Orchestra side of things, Michael Geller, executive director, and Greg Evans, operations director. Michael and Greg really shepherded us all through this week. Like a trip to orchestrational Disney World, I think it’s largely thanks to these people that we had such an amazing trip, barely ever noticing the seams behind this wonderful experience they created that ran like clockwork. To extend the Disney metaphor a little further, it was a completely immersive musical sensory experience: we all stayed awake for the electric light parade, but by the time they closed the door on the plane home I was out like a kid in a stroller.
Speaking of airplanes, with the weather turning a little sour we all ended up hanging around the airport for a bit. Here are some lighthearted parting thoughts from the participant composers: