New music is like children: there are the newborns — which always require much nurturing — and there are the rest. Attending a flashy premiere to witness the birth of a new composition always brings a thrill. But the real test of a piece is how it fares years later when it is out on its own in the world.
Just a week ago, for example, the Toronto Symphony performed Alternative Energy on their New Creations Festival. While the piece is, indeed, a new creation, its heady first days under Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony are behind it. After its premiere a year ago, and its subsequent two tours with the CSO, did I change the piece?
Of course — in small ways. Any piece benefits from post-premiere orchestrational touch-ups. But these are only the equivalent of tweaked brush stokes, not major compositional changes. The solo violin part, for instance, is almost a mini-concerto in this ‘energy symphony,’ conjuring the farm-and-junkyard days of Henry Ford on a fiddle. There were myriad small changes in dynamics and doubling that helped the concertmaster be better heard. The Toronto Symphony’s excellent Johnathan Crow channeled his inner Appalachian and brought off the part terrifically.
Equally tricky was the percussion battery, which calls for a ‘car part drumset’ assembled from a scrapyard. In the highly regulated world of orchestral music, where music meets so much well-meaning but annoying regulation, the percussion section stands as a monument to composer freedom. In various works over the years, I’ve called for oil drum; broom; Indian rattles; and pump shotgun (not a problem in gun-loving Phoenix; kind of a problem with the LA Phil). Finding novel instruments is part of the job description of the percussionist, and I have never met a single one who didn’t approach this with the most positive attitude.
And thus we have John Rudolph, principle percussion of Toronto, traipsing through a snowy junkyard on the outskirts of Toronto, searching for the most musical pickup truck gate, fender, and muffler ever built buy the Ford Motor Company (pics). This bit of ‘musical paleontology’ will happen when the piece moves to a variety of smaller orchestras next year — which is, to me, the most important test of a new work’s durability. Lots of pieces can shine when blessed by the top musicians and budgets, but the most honest test of a new work is how it fares on a regional orchestra concert. (And if, perchance, there are no junkyards in Tuscon or Hartford, the percussionists always find good substitutions. When asking for wild cards, a composer mustn’t require the work to live or die on the a particular muffler.)
What about the electronics? In the words of one all-knowing publisher, what happens when you can’t be there to play?
Apparently this person remains unaware that the solution is on display on many concerts every year. I’ve worked unbelievably hard to make electronics a non-issue, both when I am present and when I’m not. Be it The B-Sides, Rusty Air in Carolina, or Mothership, the electronic part is simple: along with the sheet music rental comes a download link for a laptop. A percussionist triggers samples at rehearsal numbers; the audio has been pre-mixed to sound decent once a basic balance is achieved. The actual sounds of the electronica part are not simple, and in fact a man-on-the-moon level of work has gone into creating them and programming this ‘dynamic sampler.’ But out of the box on the orchestra’s end, the electronics are plug-&-play. (This same publisher continued to express skepticism — even after I reminded her that she represents a wonderful composer whose entire catalogue requires the rental of synthesizers and extensive amplification. We are all the more fortunate that his music hasn’t been held back by logistics.)
Another of this month’s ‘children out in the world’ is The B-Sides, an orchestral suite that drops into five surreal landscapes. This piece has happened in dozens of places without me, from the Houston Ballet to Interlochen, and I can say that this kid is growing up fine. Sure, there are some exotic percussion instruments and some electronics. But if a piece can work on an educational concert on two rehearsals, I’m here to tell you that it can be done anywhere. This month, it’s Pittsburgh Symphony and Leonard Slatkin, a dream team I have been fortunate to work with several times.
So, what brush strokes have changed with The B-Sides? Lighter figuration in the first movement, primarily, and the recalibration of the balance in the middle spacewalk movement. In “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” the NASA archival recording that I set to music was pretty crunchy: lots of static and clipped speaking. I’ve cleaned up the audio a lot. Another touched-up brush stroke: the entrance into the last movement. The premiere required Michael Tilson Thomas to perform an accelerando out of an acoustic movement directly into a beat-matched electro-acoustic finale. Even though Michael aced it, that effect proved too risky elsewhere.
Also this month, the Nashville Symphony performed my Violin Concerto with Anne Akiko Meyers. Premiered last year in Pittsburgh, the work now makes its rounds through a variety of orchestras, and I have added a slew of edits to the original. A concerto, with its focus on a soloist, comes with extra challenges of balance. Most of the changes involved lightening the symphonic texture even more than the original. Percussive hand-slaps on the bodies of the string instruments, for example, became fingers-taps.
Slap versus tap? Are these the things that makes a young piece thrive or die in the real world? I’m afraid the answer is yes. Nothing can correct a structural problem, so you better get that right the first time. Yet the seemingly small details of orchestration accumulate, wave-like, into an ocean that is the piece.
Composers are, like parents, loathe to let go. But with enough nurturing in early life, and a few interventions in adolescence, the little ones can hold their own.