Making New (New) Music

A student recently asked me some thoughtful and detailed questions about how to make collaborative relationships work between composers and performers. I responded that each of her questions deserved specific answers, but that the one inescapable element is trust. There is no substitute for deep mutual trust that is earned over a long period of time, but I believe concrete steps can be taken immediately during the process of commissioning and developing new work to establish a creative bond.

The first question I ask composers is: how can I help? I don’t hand them a list of guidelines and limitations other than the broadest terms we’ve already agreed upon. But I also don’t just leave them alone while waiting by the e-mailbox for my masterpieces to arrive.

The next thing I do is encourage composers to start sending me sketches and harebrained ideas as soon as they’re comfortable. I explain that the purpose is not to critique their ideas, but to give me a head start on inhabiting the world they are creating. (It can be enormously helpful to an interpreter to see how ideas evolve, not only to confront the finished work.) In the meantime, I might have technical advice that will affect subsequent revisions.

I had an amazing and surprising recent experience with this when Steve Reich wrote a new quartet for So Percussion called Mallet Quartet. I was sure that, for this project, we would contentedly sit and wait for our finished score: of all living composers, this was the one who’d done the most to establish the repertoire we were playing. I knew Steve a bit from recording Drumming, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask how it was going. We happened to both be attending an event in New York. After gushing for a while about how honored we were to be involved in his new piece, I simply offered to help him in any way possible.

He said, “Oh yes! Great. I want to write for five-octave marimba, but I’ve never done it before. I know the low range has unusual sound characteristics.”

We embarked on an email correspondence where he sent sketches with multiple voicing variations. I recorded mp3s on the five-octave marimba and emailed them back. To his enormous credit, he didn’t trust his notation software to properly capture the sound, so he waited to hear each voicing on the marimba before making those decisions.

The results impressed me: the chords in the finished work that utilized the bottom range of the instrument were perfectly voiced, open and resonant. In a small way, Reich trusted me to be a part of the composition process, not only to receive a finished score. Really shrewd composers use the performers’ experience and knowledge to make their music better.

I believe that performers, in turn, must cultivate trust in composers as artists in possession of a unique voice and vision.

When performers curate programs of old music, we know exactly what we’ve already got. All of the works can be combined on the program based on their known characteristics. In my opinion, we sometimes make the mistake of treating contemporary composers like their finished pieces, using past work to pigeonhole them. We inhibit the possibility that they may surprise us. The commissioning process can be an incubator for miracles and astonishments, but we have to eliminate some of the “made to order” implications that can come with a contract.

Here’s another example from my own experience: So Percussion commissioned Oscar Bettison to write a new piece. At this point in our career, Oscar knew that our concept of writing for percussion quartet had evolved to include doing pretty much anything we were capable of. The works of his that I was familiar with all had a certain hard-edged energy, reminiscent of Louis Andriessen or the Bang on a Can composers. He had a percussion solo and a drumkit quartet that possessed those common aesthetic profiles.

I expected that his piece for us would follow suit, but we did not require it, or even imply that we had any expectations. We simply told Oscar that we liked his work. He experimented with many ideas, some of them bizarre (melodicas played by foot-pumping bellows were on the table at one point), and in the end settled upon something I’d never seen before.

Oscar requested that we order two sets of chromatic tuning forks, and came over to our studio with some chords sketched out. We experimented with different ways of amplifying them. To our collective delight, by placing the vibrating tuning forks on contact mics the sound manifested as incredibly mellow and eerily electronic, like the cascading layers from those old Robert Fripp ambient records. Oscar liked the results so much that he declared, “Let’s just have you do this for ten minutes.” The finished work, called Apart, hewed very closely to our studio improvisation, and is like nothing else he’s ever written: a time-structure piece that is meandering, contemplative, and indefinite.

By empowering composers to surprise themselves and us, the art we make together comes roaring to life. For that reason, I rarely try to influence the affect or poetic content of a new piece.

One of my favorite collaborative techniques as a performer involves the ways in which you can help the composer explore every technical challenge and possibility in what they’ve written. Too often, I’ve heard fellow performers say “this won’t work,” or “this can’t be done” upon receiving new pages of material. It’s true that sometimes there is a concrete problem, such as writing a note that’s out of range of the instrument.

But often, the problem centers on the player’s own limitations: perhaps the writing is awkward, or fiendishly difficult. I would caution performers against shutting down the composer too quickly for these reasons. If Xenakis had written his bonkers percussion solo Psappha for me, I would have immediately been intimidated by the graph score, as well as the triple mensuration canon and the jumble of notes that clearly were not composed with my ease and comfort in mind. But I hope that I would not have dismissed his innovative work (although I might have postponed the premiere for a while). I’m thankful that either his collaborators were willing to forge ahead or that he was too stubborn to relent.

So Percussion spent the 2011-12 school year mentoring composers on new pieces at Princeton, and the phrase they grew sick of us uttering was, “This is totally doable.” Roughly translated, it means, “I know I look like an idiot right now, but I am capable of playing this after a lot of work.” If I’m not sure that it really is doable, I will show the composer my best effort at executing what they’ve called for. On 99 out of 100 occasions, they will ask what they can do to make the writing flow better on the instrument, or they may realize on their own that the reality of the music they’ve written is not what they imagined it to be.

What I do not do is front-load that subjective judgment, placing the composer on the defensive before we’ve had a chance to learn anything together.

The mode of working that I’ve outlined here is time-consuming. It involves cultivating real human relationships with the people who write for you. As a result, So Percussion’s output of commissioned works is quite slow, and we will end up missing a tragically large number of wonderful composers along the way. We will never be one of the groups who can boast hundreds of premieres in our bio.

But I believe this method places an imprint upon the work that emerges from our collaborations. There is an ineffable vitality in music when the composer’s ideas are filtered through the realm of experience and trusting relationships. The magic happens when the composer is writing for people, and not just for the abstraction of an instrument or ensemble.

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