Making Friends With Mayhem

If you’ve been at this composing racket long enough, it’s inevitable that sooner or later a dash of unforeseen mayhem will add a little pizazz to your important performance/recording session/audio equipment. Relax, variety’s the spice of life!—except that the unexpected can ruin a good performance or take just as easily as it can inspire great leaps of imagination. The only thing one can ever really do is to abide by the Scout Motto and be prepared with extra parts, files, cords, and whatnot.

I have a premiere in Minneapolis this weekend, which was originally to be written for Twin Cities vocalist Ruth Mackenzie, whom the press has called “the Janis Joplin of folk.” She has a really unique vocal palette: a range tilted toward the extreme low end of the mezzo voice, and a technique steeped in folk traditions and “hard” singing techniques such as kulning (a type of “belting” which originated in Scandinavian herding calls). The text, by former U.S. laureate James Dickey, concerns itself with the relation between animals and humans, and the animal within the human—a perfect match, and as close to a “package deal” as I’ll likely ever pull off.

When unforeseen personal circumstances forced this original singer to withdraw a few weeks prior to the premiere, everyone else including the players from the Minnesota Orchestra were sympathetic and supportive. Yet it wasn’t long before we realized how difficult it would be to find a replacement for a singer of Ruth’s unique talents, especially given some pitches I wrote for her well below the “zombie grunt” zone marking the deepest depths of the mezzo register. In non-improvised music, it’s infinitely easier to replace instrumentalists than it is to replace singers, whose “instruments” are infinitely more personal in nature. Luckily, we found a great match in singer Christina Baldwin, who did a heroic job of learning the piece so well and quickly, surmounting the difficult task of inhabiting a role not custom-fit for herself while still lending it her own personal touch. Along with a little tweaking of troublesome pitches, everything is coming off well and (as they say) the best was made of a bad situation.

I’ve witnessed more than one conductor restart the movement of a symphony; heard a performance of the Schubert Octet where there first beat was preceded by an (obviously) unexpected canon fired a few blocks away; seen a cello player’s Hill bow snap in two during a performance of my music; attended an electronic music concert where the unexpected need for an extension cord resulted in the cancellation of the concert’s entire first half; hell, a summer program for young composers at which I used to teach (in which the participants paid for and were promised archival recordings of their new compositions, on which many were relying for college applications) had the final concert interrupted by a strange, amplified growling that began every time music was played, then abruptly ceased—we later learned that there was a possum stuck in one of the organ pipes. And I’m confident that some of my colleagues have lived to tell even stranger tales.

As always, the show must go on, and it’s always amazing to see everyone pull together around a common goal, especially in the classical concert world where composers, performers, and presenters often work in relative isolation—whether that means composing a new opera interlude to cover up the loud sounds of moving machinery, or finishing the performance with one less string, or running to CVS in the rain to procure an extension cord. It’s often these unexpected and unwanted acts of mayhem that make me at once apprehend and appreciate the true meaning of a “concerted” effort.

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