Lazarus Music

I’ve had several pieces that have seemed to me to be purely unlucky. There was the quintet that lay dormant for three years before receiving its premiere, the duo that’s been performed nearly a dozen times but has only been recorded during performances that didn’t go very well (while the excellent performances have been out of range of any microphones), the quartet that kept getting turned down by concert presenters, etc. Some of these pieces are very difficult to put together, or were composed for a specific occasion that got cancelled and then the commissioner never had access to that instrumentation again. To paraphrase Tolstoy in a way that surely will cause him to spin in his grave, all successful pieces are alike but each miserable piece is unique.

For me, the past few weeks have been an incredibly hopeful period in this regard. There’s one work that I’ve known for a while has needed revisions. Recent very fruitful conversations with the person for whom I wrote it have led me to where I’ve finally figured out a way to improve the piece while also making it more gracious to play. I’m terribly excited to make these changes so the piece can finally see the light of day. I also had an arrangement of a work that I created without having any real experience writing for the instrument in question that was premiered last week after sitting for several years. It sounded better in this version than in any previous iteration of the composition.

Finally, there’s my recent experience with my unluckiest composition, a work for 7-string electric violin. This project began when I was teaching at the Merit School of Music in Chicago, in the basement of Dearborn Station. One day I heard the most exquisite electric guitar playing ever from the room next door, which was an odd sound at this serious tuition-free conservatory. So odd, that I had to find the source. I was greatly surprised to learn that I wasn’t hearing a guitar at all. Instead it was the violinist Chuck Bontrager practicing on his 7-string electric violin. We immediately made arrangements for me to write something for him. About two years later, in 2007, I finally was able to compose the piece. Since I was writing for a rock instrument, I decided to go against type and to create a very quiet microtonal work for which the seven strings would be tuned very specifically, the first in what would become my series of Introspection pieces.

Despite the excitement he expressed when he first saw the piece, Chuck was unable to find the right venue for premiering it. Meanwhile, I sent the score to some other electric violinists, only to find that they each played 5- or 6-string versions and that the 7-string model is only used by a few players, all of whom are in death metal bands. Since the tuning is integral to my work, a version for fewer strings would be a very different piece, and so I waited. I found various ways to check the tuning in time, which my outdated software had been unable to do when I first composed the piece, and realized that the microtonal aspects worked just fine. Eventually, I heard that Chuck was going to play it at an unofficial concert, but I didn’t hear anything afterwards and so I began to think that this piece might never be played. I chalked it up to experience, figuring that it helped me to become a better composer and thinking that I had learned valuable lessons from the composition even though I would never hear it.

Then out of the blue, I received an email last week with a video of a performance of the piece. Chuck plays it beautifully, and seeing how he needs to contort in order to realize the left-hand pizzicato technique that I ask for throughout made me realize how incredibly difficult it must be to play. (The wider neck of the 7-string model makes it very difficult to pluck the lower strings while fingering any notes on the upper ones.) But he can play it, and play it very well, and we’re coming up with very exciting plans for future performances.

Like Lazarus, this piece has been raised from the dead. I had moved through the stages of mourning to acceptance, only to find that it can live after all. I’m in the very happy position of needing to re-calibrate my emotional relationship to the work in order to account for the fact that it really can exist. This process is surprisingly difficult for me, because I honestly don’t know how I feel about this old piece anymore. On the one hand, I’m hearing it for the first time, but on the other hand it represents the composer I was several years ago. When pieces are premiered shortly after they’re completed, I get inured to their flaws and accept them for what they are. But this time I’m hearing the work for the first time when I’m no longer wedded to its essence and so all I hear are the compositional mistakes, the things that I would do differently if I were writing the piece today. Hopefully, soon I’ll be able to accept the composition for what it is. Meanwhile, I’m very thankful for Chuck’s efforts which have allowed this piece to fully exist!

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