What if you looked, forever, the way you did the day you were born? If so, I’d look like an angry red worm with a hairpiece. We grow up. In most cases, the same could be true for many pieces of music: after the blinding reality of the premiere performance, most new works evolve.
Alternative Energy’s appearance this month in several disparate places – Pittsburgh, Poland, and Sweden – has me thinking about the evolution of a piece over its performance history.
Shorter pieces like Mothership or Garages of the Valley appear much more regularly, but with my ‘energy symphony’ being so much bigger on all fronts, a week of simultaneous performances provokes a moment of reflection. In this case, it not only makes me think about the way a piece changes over its life, but also two of the wonderful groups playing the piece. This marks my final concert as Composer of the Year with the Pittsburgh Symphony, an orchestra I’ve come to cherish as one of the most vibrant in the country. And across the pond in Poland, one of my dearest friends and collaborators, Benjamin Shwartz, is conducting the piece in Breslau. Both the PSO and Beni Shwartz have done much to bring my music to wide audiences – with many an adjustment on my part.
Large-scale formal changes are not what I’m talking about. You don’t want to finish painting a picture and realize the house is in the wrong place. That’s what pencil sketches are for (in my world, pre-compositional planning). But orchestration tweaks – the musical equivalent of brushstrokes – are always necessary. The accumulation of these details adds up to a significantly better-realized piece, so I always go through the score right after the premiere performances and ask myself hard questions. If there are no adjustments, there weren’t enough risks.
Often the first changes are solo passages, since solo instruments are very vulnerable to delicate balance issues. For example, the concertmaster in Alternative Energy acts as a phantom concerto soloist, conjuring the farm-and-junkyard days of Henry Ford on a fiddle (when not replacing the horse, Ford apparently played bluegrass). Myriad small but important changes in dynamics and doubling have helped clarify every riff and bent-note of the concertmaster. One favorite solution is to reduce to solo principal strings for a moment. When you have the principal bass suddenly pop out in a string bass solo, it not only improves the dynamics, but it creates a vibrant change in scale. This might be called the “suddenly chamber solution.”
Equally tricky was the percussion battery, which in this piece is 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; definitely 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 see myriad principal percussionists traipsing through junkyards in the worst parts of town, searching for the most musical pickup truck gate, fender, and muffler ever built buy the Ford Motor Company. This bit of ‘musical paleontology’ happens wherever the piece is performed, and I’ve been delighted to see it work beyond the Top 7 orchestras. Lots of pieces can shine when blessed by the superb musicians and budgets, but the most honest test of a new work is how it fares on a regional orchestra concert. Plus, a musical field trip gives the players a little more involvement and ownership of the experience.
What changes occurred in the car-part drumset? For one thing, I realized (again) that metallic percussion cuts through acoustic space almost like electronic sounds, so the dynamics came down to PPP and some passages were cut. Sometimes the best approach to a wild-card – be it a junk percussion ensemble or electronic sounds – is the “play against expectation” solution. Everyone wants to wail away on junk, for instance, but far more surprising and musical is to ask for gently propulsive sounds.
And the electronics? The big change is one that happens to all my electronic works: I make a Betty Crocker version that happens without me. In Poland right now, a percussionist is triggering soundfiles on a laptop. This he does in rhythm, but with far less of a performative element than when I “cook live.” That version is in stereo (instead of 6-channel surround) and has been endlessly remixed as I’ve performed the piece over the years. Creating an easily realizable version of the electronic sounds has been a key component in the dissemination of my music. One by one, orchestras have realized how powerfully they can change their sound – without much hassle.
Almost all the post-premiere electronic adjustments fall into the “risk of the unknown” category. Who knew that extremely quiet jungle ambience in the final movement would project like a laser? As I learned (and subsequently forgot) with Rusty Air in Carolina, high-frequency insect noise has a way of being heard. How do you simulate a spinning particle accelerator without surrounding the audience with speakers? Putting the speakers in a half-moon around the orchestra created a rich, giant pan that avoided the headaches of running cables all over the hall. These are the kinds of “in the field” solutions that I love working through.
Having the Pittsburgh Symphony bring the piece to life marks a special moment for me. The group is unique for a couple of reasons, the first of which is its stunningly tight playing. Somehow the percussion and first violins are always perfectly locked together, a challenge in every orchestra because of the fifty feet between those sections. The horns are stunning and the principal winds comprise one of the finest quartets in the field. And it’s a nice group of people. The players ask deep questions and stop by to offer thoughtful comments. I always think fondly of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
This will be the ninth work of mine the PSO has played. That says quite a bit about their commitment to living composers, and it happens because of the PSO’s Composer of the Year program. There are few orchestras that devote so much space on their subscription concerts to one composer. More people in our field should be aware of what the PSO is doing.
On a more personal level, having Benjamin Shwartz conduct Alternative Energy reminds me how friendship can be so beautifully intertwined with music in our field. As the co-conspirators behind Mercury Soul, we’ve spent countless late nights fusing classical music and electronic dance music in clubs around the country, dealing with mob-type club owners, alien sound guys, and all manner of silicone-enhanced clubbers in Miami, often through a haze of psychedelic lighting (and sometimes actual haze). We’ve had the joyful adventure of watching how the deep experience of classical music can blow minds well outside the concert hall. Now serving as music director of the massive Breslau Philharmonic in Poland, he is continuing his fearless advocacy of new music while also exploring the repertoire’s masterworks.
Two great collaborators. One piece that’s endured some growing pains. Many great musicians who bring it all to life. Thanks to all.