Fear and Trembling

In my mid-twenties, I completely changed artistic course. At the time, I was toiling in the dark heart of theaters, working towards eventually becoming a producer and director of live shows. For me, the collaborative nature of theater was a constant source of joy and frustration, in nearly equal measure. In stage shows, everyone has a voice in the final product, and a single strong-willed actor has the ability to completely alter the interpretive nature of an entire production. As I spent more and more time in this world, I found my resentment of these working conditions building until it finally reached a breaking point. At that moment, the world of music composition beckoned brightly with its promise of creative control.

Classical musicians are incredible creatures, and to an outsider they create pure magic. It took me years to figure out how chamber groups were able to start in perfect synchronization without a drummer’s count-off. And unlike actors, these performers are able to create personal interpretations within the strict limitations of the notation on the page and the inherited lore of performance practice. Whereas—even in classic works—actors will alter lines of dialogue, it’s difficult to imagine a violinist changing a few notes in a Beethoven string quartet in order to make them more closely match the performer’s interpretation. Indeed, the musicians are far more likely to inflict great pain upon themselves than to change the marks on the page.* As a budding control freak, I knew that these were my ideal peers.

Over time, I’ve come to realize how special this relationship between composer and musician truly can be. There are a huge number of performers who will work tirelessly towards realizing the intrinsic artistic vision of the composer while also adding elements of their personality as layers of meaning embedded within the final product. When this sort of relationship develops, the result is far greater than the sum of its parts, and is a magical and humbling experience for the composer.

But, for me, the time leading up to the concert and the concert itself remain the most excruciating parts of the composerly life. Even in the most ideal situations, the best live performances always flirt with the possibility of pure disaster. Strings are very tightly wound and can snap in two. Reeds can begin to crack and water can seep into the keypads. Singers can develop slight flu-like symptoms. And very few concerts are ideal situations. Unless I’ve heard a piece of mine live several times, I still don’t know what to make of it. In the premiere performance, hidden flaws in my own work always begin to reveal themselves to me, and with each additional performance, I uncover more problems.

As regular readers of this column are no doubt aware, the bulk of my composing time this year went into the creation of a nonopera. Because of this, I have not been to a premiere performance of my own music since I began writing this column. However, that situation will change this week and the next as the nonopera goes on a regional tour of Brooklyn, Baltimore, Hartford, and Boston. From this distance, these performances appear as if they will be as close to the ideal as possible. The performers have had their parts for two months now and have been working diligently for that entire time. I tailored this piece carefully for the singers of Rhymes With Opera, and they tell me that they are enjoying learning the vocal parts, the new language I invented, and even the instrumental doubling that I ask each of them to perform. The West End String Quartet, which is functioning as the orchestra, quickly burrowed into a place close to my heart by beginning to email me to clarify issues in their parts within days of receiving them, and have remained dear to me by cheerfully approaching all of the odd performance directives (even those that are designed to make the instruments sound fragile or unpleasant) with the goal of creating the desired sound instead of the one that best shows off their traditional chops. In short, I have as much confidence as possible that the premiere performances will be of the piece that I composed.

And yet, I still am approaching these dates with fear and trembling. If—against all odds and despite the incredible efforts of the fantastic musicians—something does go wrong in performance, my work will be judged by what the audience hears. Even seasoned composers cannot distinguish between an inaccurate performance and a poorly planned composition. For someone like me, who cherishes the artistic control of the composer, this prospect is so disheartening that even giving it voice makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. But there is one other possibility that frightens me even more: that the piece itself may be a disaster. I can’t possibly know whether that is the case until I’ve heard the piece in its entirety sitting amongst an audience. For me, the reactions of the rest of the audience are totally irrelevant, but the very act of being part of a community changes my mode of listening in order to heighten my experience of my own music, allowing me to begin to uncover the artistic mistakes that I’ve invariably added into the compositional mix. In rehearsal, I always am listening towards how to improve things, how to fix the individual moments. I take off this hat at the premiere and instead begin to hear the piece as a flawed yet finished product. That is the point from which the true fear originates.

FOOTNOTE:

* A side note to this thought that puts it all into perspective as far as I’m concerned is the conversation that I had with a professional bassoonist. I posed a hypothetical situation in which a perfect pre-fabricated reed was developed that sounded great every time but that was absolutely carcinogenic and would lead directly to mouth cancer. After some discussion, he determined that, yes, he would probably still use the cancer-causing reed, but would save it for concerts.

One thought on “Fear and Trembling

  1. Paul Muller

    “Even in the most ideal situations, the best live performances always flirt with the possibility of pure disaster.”

    So true – and if that is not the case you are not trying hard enough!

    A corollary to this is that when the music is performed for the audience all of the problems and frustrations are banished and are never heard past the first row. It is amazing how many times the performance is actually the best reading of a piece and it all comes together. As a player and composer I sweat the rehearsals – the performances usually take care of themselves…

    Reply

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