Listening to the third orchestra in six months take on my Figments and Fragments in rehearsal this week has been a lovely and nourishing experience. For some composers (not many), this experience – hearing several different orchestras play a new work in a short time frame – is commonplace. It’s a new one for me, and one that has opened new ways of thinking about my orchestral writing. How I would have loved to have had this experience 15-20 years ago!
I had always thought of joint commissions as a way of getting more exposure and more money in the composer’s pocket – in other words, as a professional boost. Those two benefits are certainly real, but the artistic value of hearing a large work get on its feet in several different venues with several different ensembles is tremendous, at least as great as the professional benefit.
From time to time, we hear of young composers who have this kind of experience, but more often it happens somewhat later in life. Why? Because young composers are made more of potential than accomplishment, and commissions seldom come as a result of potential. It’s an old and venerable rule – people prefer to spend their money on things they know will work.
So somehow one has to refine ones orchestral skills in the absence of this kind of experience. At least that’s how it has worked for me.
In any case, listening to the Idyllwild Symphony, the Salt Lake Symphony and the Boise Philharmonic put this piece together has taught me a few things I’m happy to know. It’s given me an opportunity to learn my about my work from several different perspectives.
Over the last few months of his life, Robert Schumann gradually succumbed to a paralysis that eventually left him all but motionless. Figments and Fragments imagines his state of mind while incarcerated in the asylum where he died. It begins and ends with evocations of paralysis: first a blissful, floating paralysis, then a raging, helpless deep-freeze. Here’s an excerpt of the first section of the piece, titled Emergence – paralysis as a state of relief, a sensual stasis:
By the way, I’m trying not to take too much to heart the fact that this piece is being played on a concert featuring “composers who struggled with mental illness.”
In my case, the struggle is hardly something I’d put in the past tense.