On June 13 in Brooklyn, a triumvirate of concerts occurred that might have been unthinkable 40 years ago. Frederic Rzewski’s musically and politically radical 1971/72 suite Coming Together/Attica was presented at two venues by three ensembles, each of the groups having planned their concerts independently, without knowledge of the other productions in the works.
If such confluence can be taken as evidence that Coming Together/Attica is a part of the contemporary repertoire today, that might come as a surprise to people who were present for the piece’s premiere—or, at the very least, to a couple of critics. Covering what he termed the “local premiere” at the State University of New York-Buffalo for The New York Times on April 12, 1974, the critic Harold C. Schonberg complained about Coming Together—which sets a paragraph written by a prisoner during the Attica prison riots to an insistently repeating five-note motif—that “the narrator operates almost like a tape loop, constantly repeating sentences. A few minutes of this, all right. But 20 minutes, and it ends up music to sleep by.”
Curiously, the Times ran a review just over a year later—on June 4, 1975—of a concert also presenting Coming Together as a premiere. (Perhaps this was the New York City premiere, although the article doesn’t specify.) The piece fared only slightly better this time around. Peter G. Davis wrote of the concert at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, “Mr. Rzewski played his music brilliantly, but diluted the dramatic effect by declaiming the text in a barely audible and unbelievably monotone drone.” That’s all the consideration the piece got in the review of the concert, which included five other works labeled as “premieres.”
It would seem a hard road to travel from dismissive remarks in the Times to performances by Ictus Percussion, ThingNY, and Newspeak all coinciding on the same night. (The first two performances were part of Conrad Tao’s Unplay Festival at powerHouse Arena in Dumbo; the third occurred during the first night of a three-night run by Newspeak with new choreography by Rebecca Lazier at the Invisible Dog Center in Brooklyn Heights.) Of course, how a piece goes from a perhaps uneventful premiere to even somewhat standard repertoire is the new music million dollar question. But one thing seems certain: There has to be a second performance.
Coming Together and its companion piece Attica (which are sometimes given the subtitles Attica I and Attica II) did grow in reputation in the years following its premiere performances. Writing about its LP release for The Village Voice in 1978, the critic and composer Tom Johnson said it epitomized a move away from chord progressions among such composers as Steve Reich and Brian Eno. “Of the many recordings of new music that are almost totally unknown, Frederic Rzewski’s Opus One album (Opus One-20) is about the finest one that I happen to know about. [...] I’ve listened to it many times, been touched by its political messages, felt its rhythmic power, and strained by concentration to the hilt trying to follow its melodies as they gradually grow longer and longer.” High praise for a piece that, seven years after its composition, was still “almost totally unknown.”
Rzewski’s politically charged diptych has been performed consistently over the years. It has appeared on at least four other albums since the Opus One LP, and with Rzewski’s imprimatur, the score has been available online as a freely downloadable PDF making it readily available for performance anywhere. It’s also been in ThingNY’s repertoire for about five years and they had performed it a half dozen times, including on election night 2012 at Spectrum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, prior to the Unplay Festival.
For the ensemble’s vocalist Gelsey Bell, the piece is still politically and musically relevant some 40 years after its conception. It was Bell who suggested they include the piece (which, not incidentally, was written more than a decade before she was born) on their Unplay program.
“Structurally it feels like a piece from the ‘70s,” she said, echoing Johnson’s assessment. “What’s nice about it is it does leave a lot open to interpretation. It feels like us doing it right now so it does still feel politically relevant. That and the fact that prisons are still a very relevant topic–it’s going to be relevant for a long time.”
The bold repetitions might not be as shocking today, she noted, but that doesn’t take away from the music.
“I think it’s a beautiful piece,” she said. “Now it might not be very surprising. Contemporary new music audiences aren’t so surprised by it, but its beauty is really obvious.”
Younger ensembles playing a piece—as with ThingNY taking on Rzewski—isn’t just a strong indicator of a piece’s chances at longevity; it’s arguably a necessary condition. Without what conductor and percussionist Steven Schick refers to as a “beta generation” of performers, a work can quickly be lost to history.
“There’s this alpha generation of performers who have contact with the composer and will inject the composition into the repertoire,” Schick said. “And then there’s what I think of as the beta generation of performers who maybe don’t have contact with the composer and make it into what we think of it as. The beta generation coming up is the sign of a piece’s success.”
Schick is big on repeat performances and said he’s performed Bone Alphabet—which he commissioned from Brian Ferneyhough in 1992—some 300 times.
“Most commissioned pieces I perform, if they aren’t picked up two or three years after I premiere it, I think something went wrong. Maybe this is more typical in percussion because we don’t have a large repertoire. If there’s a new piece by David Lang and it hasn’t been performed 40 times the day after exclusivity has expired, then I don’t know what’s going on.”
As a conductor, Schick has faced some challenging premieres, notably presenting James Dillon’s Nine Rivers at Miller Theater on the Columbia University campus in 2011. The massive undertaking calls for three stage settings and is intended to be performed on a single night with the audience moving between venues. Five scheduled premieres in Europe were canceled before Miller Theater took it on, spreading it over three nights instead of different venues. But the conductor quit three days before the opening night. Schick was called in to save the day and presented the expansive work again at the Holland Festival in June.
“The idea of maintaining some kind of coherence was very difficult,” he said of the Nine Rivers premiere. “Exactly where you are in the piece becomes a lot clearer on the third, fourth, fifth performance. The first time it was literally a case of ‘let’s get through this without anything terrible happening.’”
Schick will return to Miller this winter for two nights of concerts celebrating his 60th birthday. One night will consist of what he calls “foundational works,” including pieces by Xenakis and Stockhausen, while the second night will feature works he’s commissioned, including two premieres.
Miller Theater will also be celebrating a birthday this fall, marking 25 years since renovating and changing its name from McMillin Theater to its current moniker. Melissa Smey, who has worked with the theater for 12 years and has been executive director since 2009, is well aware of the prestige in presenting premieres, even if it doesn’t affect ticket sales.
“There’s a received wisdom that they’re newsworthy; you’re adding to the field of music,” she said. “There’s an idea that there’s a glamour in a world premiere, it’s exciting, it’s new. And as a presenter, you’re getting some input as to what the piece will be.”
Smey invited British vocal troupe The Tallis Scholars to perform at the theater this fall (the concert marking yet another birthday, the ensemble’s 40th anniversary) and has commissioned composer Michael Nyman to write a new piece for them. As the commissioner, she said, she is working with Nyman to decide such details as what the accompanying instrumentation of the piece will be.
But when that piece might get a second performance is an open question. It could remain in the Tallis songbook, or of course be picked up by other ensembles. And Miller does make efforts to re-present works that they commissioned on anniversaries of their premieres. But for the most part, she said, the presenter and commissioner’s work is done once the piece is premiered.
“You have dozens of ensembles that are commissioning pieces and then they become a part of their work. It’s different for presenters. You’re serving an audience and you can’t do the same piece 18 times.
“But who decided that it must have a second performance for it to be successful?” she added. “If you were to ask a composer to write a piece and it will get played once or it will never get played, I bet they’d pick that it get played once.”
Certainly that much is true for pianist and composer Anthony Coleman. “Do I actually seek second performances?” he said with a laugh. “I guess as much as I actively seek anything.”
With at least as much history in the world of downtown improvisation as he has in formal composition, Coleman may be more accustomed than some to the sometimes ephemeral nature of musical performance. But of course he’s not inclined to turn up his nose at return engagements.
“You don’t know if a group loves you if they give a premiere,” he said. “You just know they love giving premieres. If they play it the second time, you start to think maybe they like you. It’s like a second date. A first date is so fraught–you come with your shit and you try to think of something to say. When I work with people like Tilt or Either/Or, I get the sense that we’re building a relationship. It’s very rare that the first performance doesn’t have that edge of nervousness around it.”
According to Coleman, a piece needs time—and performances—to really be discovered:
The good performance doesn’t usually come until a few more down the line. I wasn’t at the first performance of the Carter Double Concerto, but for sure people were like, “How is this piece supposed to unfold?” It’s like D-Day with the guns blazing and then after a few performances you can start to see what’s going on.
The first time I saw the Ligeti Études it was by a pianist named Volker Banfield, and it’s no disrespect to Volker Banfield to say he was like an explorer. He was the first person to discover the Zambezi Falls. Now it’s been discovered. It’s been proven that it can be played; it’s encouraged other pianists. And now there’s a lot more quality, there’s a lot more ease, there’s almost a philosophical formula you could say. Once somebody does it, you know that it can be done. And then a piece starts to get its own history, its own culture.
One way of ensuring repeat performances, of course, is to have a standing group—as is the case with the Bang on a Can All-Stars or Steve Reich and Musicians, for example—so that pieces can be programmed more or less at will.
“Premieres are exciting, but I think that when you’re talking about as deep an experience as hearing music, it doesn’t have anything to do with that,” said composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe. “A lot of times people are like, ‘It’s already been done in New York.’ What? It’s a great piece! Why not do it again? There’s always somebody putting together an In C. Something like that, it becomes a cult piece.”
The Bang on a Can organization launched its People’s Commissioning Fund in 1998—well before such crowd-funding models as Kickstarter and Indiegogo—as a way to generate new pieces, and it has averaged three new works a year for its performance ensemble, the Bang on a Can All Stars.
“There are keepers, shall we say,” Wolfe explained. “When you commission a piece, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes everybody is struck by a piece and we say, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to tour this piece.’”
There are many factors other than intrinsic worthiness which determine if a piece will get repeat performances after the annual PCF concert, she added.
“It really varies,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a complicated piece or it involves the composer having to be there. It’s interesting being a composer; you have to make the art and service the art. There is this part of the profession where you are making it possible for people to hear your piece. Some of the most important pieces I’ve written–like, ‘Do I really want to write for nine bagpipes?’–I’ve been amazed they’ve been done again. You just never know.”
Another thing that can guarantee repeat performances, of course, is if the funding for a commission comes with that as a requirement. Chamber Music America routinely makes multiple performances a requirement, according to CMA Chief Executive Officer Margaret Lioi.
“We are making the investment in the commission on behalf of the funder, so just to have one performance seems a little slight,” Lioi said. “We are very committed to living composers and new work, and they need to be heard by as many people as possible. Not every group commissions new work. CMA has many different kinds of members and some members are really very devoted to the traditional, western canon of music.”
Like Schick, Lioi stressed that a piece is unlikely to survive if it isn’t played: “Hearing new music and supporting composers is very much a part of the ecology of chamber music and is what will keep it vital not just for the contemporary audience but in 25 or 100 years.”
Likewise New Music USA–the parent organization of NewMusicBox–funds composers with an eye toward the longevity of their work.
“We rarely fund composers directly but we’ll probably start doing more of that,” according to Director of Grantmaking Programs Scott Winship. “However it would be unlikely that we would fund a composer without some ensemble or presenter backing it up so we see a premiere.”
Under the Commissioning Music USA program, New Music USA has traditionally required four performances of a funded piece and has encouraged that there be more, Winship said.
“It’s important in helping the piece move on,” he explained. “The ‘one-and-done’ idea wasn’t something we wanted to do. Having multiple performances gives the work a chance to shine. It’s really polished after the four performances and getting it out there gives a work a greater chance at being included in an ensemble’s repertoire. Having a piece toured and put before a lot of audiences is great for the composer.”
Eric Lyon may not have the benefit of a standing ensemble of All Stars, but he has developed a close relationship with violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, writing works with them in mind and even giving the duo its stage name, String Noise. Second performances, he said, come “only in my dreams—or nightmares. Most violinists you show my work to, they’d run the other way screaming.
“I used to write for violin or oboe but now I write for Pauline or Conrad,” Lyon explained. “There are pieces I wrote for [flutist] Margaret Lancaster. She has such a strong personality that infuses it. I took the piece and had another flutist play it who was very much a delicate flower, and it became a very different piece. It was kind of shocking.”
Lyon wrote Noise Tryptych and Book of Strange Positions for the String Noise duo and has arranged punk and new wave songs specifically for them, making quick, pounding string minuets out of Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme” and the Germs’ “Lexicon Devil,” and giving a Reichian phase treatment to Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” He also scored the Psycho Killer Variations, based on the Talking Heads’ song, for Kim Harris.
String Noise has built up a book of pieces written for them, not just by Lyon but a number of composers, including Petr Kotik, Todd Reynolds, Elizabeth Hoffman, Matthew Welch, and others. And they not only give the pieces repeat performances, they sometimes repeat entire programs based on what Conrad Harris referred to as “cohesive units of composers.”
But, he added, he still anticipates the excitement of the first performance.
“When we have six new pieces or eleven new pieces it is a little daunting,” Harris said. “Part of the excitement is actually trying to play it. You’re probably going to have the composer in attendance and you’re going to have the excitement of the people in the audience; it sort of transcends the experience. It gets better if there is a level of excitement; it has a different energy.”
“The point of the premiere is to be all that you can be in the time you have,” Kim Harris added. “People aren’t expecting perfection. Sometimes composers aren’t satisfied or performers aren’t satisfied, but that’s the way it is.”
Kim Harris premiered Variations on Psycho Killer on April 14, 2012, at the Dimenna Center for Classical Music on Manhattan’s West Side. Since then, she has performed the piece at Bowery Electric and BargeMusic and has shot a video for it (the video itself premiering now on NewMusicBox). While the premiere performance was exhilarating, she said, it was also far from perfect. She had received the score only days before the performance and then on the night of the concert she forgot to turn off her bridge pickup before playing the piece, which calls for some fairly aggressive technique.
“Every time I would bow or finger there would be excessive pick-up noise,” she explained. “But just getting through the piece, I think, is part of the whole phenomenon, and not knowing what the piece is going to sound like—there’s no recording you can listen to. The thrill of learning something quickly and playing it for the first time—I’m addicted to it! I keep wanting people to give me something new.”
Flutist Amelia Lukas has been presenting new music since she moved to New York in 2007 under the banner Ear Heart Music, first at the Tank and more recently at Roulette. And while her fledgling organization isn’t in a position to commission pieces yet, Lukas does work to pair composers with dancers, video artists, and people from other disciplines to create a new experience even if it’s not a premiere performance.
“A lot of what I’m doing instead of commissioning is matchmaking,” she said. “They’ll come to me and say, ‘We have this musical idea’ and I can make suggestions about like minded artists they can work with. There’s so much potential for this kind of music to be happening right now. Groups want to do it. Audiences want to hear it. Audiences are looking for that total immersion experience when they go to concerts and I’m just working to provide a space where that can happen, in all ways—space, funding, resources, and developing audiences that have an understanding of music as a social response.”
But while creating a rich concert experience is important to Lukas, presenting premieres may not be one of Ear Heart Music’s primary goals:
The second, third, fourth, fifth hearings are as important as the premiere. Premieres have this built-in promotion machine, but they’re very often just as quickly forgotten about. It’s only when you have these repeat performances that you can sort the catalog and understand where the piece falls in terms of context and longevity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m very into premieres. If you’re committed to this work, you’re committed to giving premieres. But looking at the back catalogs of composers, you have a much easier time of fitting a work into a program. I really do try to look at the general shape of things and when you look at those back catalogs you can really pick some gems that people don’t know about.
Sometimes it’s fun to be surprised and hear something new and sometimes it’s fun to have certain expectations and have them met or not met and be surprised.
One reason for the prevalence of premiere performances is the simple fact that there is so much more composition being done. As with record production, filmmaking, music criticism, and smartphone development, there’s just more and more music being written and therefore more and more music to premiere.
“You have so many composers, you have so many performances, it’s not possible for anyone to consume all this music,” Lukas said. “That’s why it’s presenters’ and critics’ jobs to help make those discerning choices about what gets presented.”
As Melissa Smey asked, who decided that a work must have a second performance to be successful? But on the other hand, if we drown ourselves in premieres, are we falling short of helping to decide what’s important for future generations?
“We are establishing the 21st-century canon,” according to Anthony Coleman. “There are plenty of performances of pieces by David Lang and Lachenmann. And who is the composer that as soon as they drop dead everyone will start playing? In the middle of all this bullshit, there are some pieces getting played.”