The first six months of 2010 were more eventful than this blog could keep up with. In part, that’s a reflection of a sudden increase in activity on my part, but it also results from the amount of time it takes me to process my experiences and thoughts.
I am not a quick chewer.
Little by little, I’m getting a chance to chew through what I’ve learned these last few months, and I have some thoughts to share.
First, a timeline. My first sketches for what ultimately became The Infinite Sphere dated from 2002. Five years later, the Kenan Institute announced their LINKS commissioning initiative, and I got in touch with the Daedalus Quartet about collaborating on a premiere. We worked out an agreement fairly quickly, and I wrote the bulk of the piece between September 2008 and May 2009.
In January 2010 I flew up to Philadelphia to attend a rehearsal. By then, Daedalus had learned all the notes and figured out how they wanted to play the piece. They really had everything down, but I still had a few interpretive clarifications to share.
When I listen to a rehearsal of a new piece, I’m wearing two hats. I’m listening to the interpretation so I can offer insights into my intentions. I’m also listening to the piece compositionally, trying to find the weakest moments, the passages that undermine the goals of the music, or don’t live up to the expected level. When I was a younger, less experienced composer, it was very difficult for me to distinguish between these two types of listening. In other words, when a passage didn’t sound the way I wanted it to, I had a hard time determining whether the piece was flawed or the performers simply weren’t playing it the way it should be played.
At this point, my ears and mind have suffered enough damage – excuse me, experience – that I have little trouble recognizing the cause of any problems I hear. With the fourth quartet, a few words were enough to get exactly the performance I wanted to hear. At the same time, I was able to identify two passages that weren’t working the way I wanted compositionally.
A week later, the piece was premiered at Wolf Trap. I wasn’t able to be there. (As a side note, the fact that I’ve only been able to attend one of the five performances this quartet has had really bothered me. I feel like I haven’t been nearly as attentive as I’d like to be – this piece really deserved better. But it’s been a very busy time for me.)
The following day, the Daedalus Quartet came to UNCSA for a seminar and a second performance. And that’s where the pics come in. A photographer by the name of Allen Aycock was on hand for my composition seminar and has captured, perhaps for the first time, a magic trick of which I am particularly proud: using only my hands, I am able to raise a score of music from waist level to over my head. Voilà!
Come to think of it, every piece I write seems to start at waist level and end up over my head.
More pics, including a shot of the Daedalus Quartet giving an impromptu reading session of a piece by my student Ryan Dodge.
The performance that night was unbelievable – pristine, passionate, superb in every way.
But getting back to the two passages that weren’t working the way I wanted them to – two weeks went by between the second and third performances, which gave me a chance to correct my mistakes. I made two 6-bar cuts, one in each of the two movements.
The first cut was of a phrase that leaned a bit too far in the direction of unity – always a tricky balance. Each piece has to find the right mix of unity and diversity, and this passage erred in favor of unity for six measures, creating a brief dead spot.
Snip, snip – gone!
I had thought the problematic passage in the second movement was a transition, but I realized in performance that it was more than that, it was really a transition to a transition, and the two transitions weakened one another. Again, out with the virtual scissors and the problem magically disappeared. Now the passage proceeds directly to where it’s going, as I smile and nod my approval – or is it relief?
Some composers finish a composition and move on to the next piece but, as I said before, I’m a slow chewer, so I take advantage of every opportunity to adjust and refine. I could give two holy hoots about what date the piece was supposedly completed – as long as I’m still breathing, I reserve the right to make every piece I write as wonderful as it possibly can be. Art has to trump history. And if filmmakers can shoot several endings and pick the one that works best after previews, why can’t I do something similar?
The third performance took place at Penn. As an additional challenge for Daedalus, they spent the majority of the two-week interim in Europe, playing six different concerts in six nights. Meanwhile, I was emailing them my latest adjustments which, by the way, made for an impossible page turn for the second violinist. Nonetheless, I know they took the changes in stride even though I wasn’t able to attend the Penn performance because I saw them two days later in New York for the recording session, and it was really exquisite.
We spent about six hours recording, with the expert Judy Sherman guiding the proceedings.
They performed the piece two more times in May, both in New York. Again, I’m upset that I wasn’t able to hear it live more than once, because I’m guessing it won’t be performed again anytime soon — Kyu Young Kim has left Daedalus, replaced by Ara Gregorian, and I suspect they’ll probably focus Gregorian’s time on learning the rest of their rep and newer commissions. But one never knows. I’m so happy with the piece, which is seldom true for me, so it’s a bit sad for me to have missed so much of its inaugural run. One always hopes a piece can find a life beyond the initial performances, but one never holds ones breath.
And I say that as a man who likes to chew.
UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Daedalus Quartet is including this piece in its 2011-12 offerings, so maybe I’ll be able to hear it live again after all.