The Birth & Life of New Work

Getting into space is hard, but throwing oneself into deep orbit is much harder.

The premiere of a new work — say, Alternative Energy, for orchestra and electronica in 2012 — can feel like a trip to the moon.  The thrill of a premiere of a large work by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony felt, at the time, like the pinnacle of a long journey — and it was, to be sure.  But perched on the edge of one planet, one then focuses on various others deeper in the solar system.

How does a composer launch a new work beyond the premiere?

Alternative Energy certainly is not in deep space yet, but it has managed to float beyond the beyond the gravitational pull of its first performances, on various programs of orchestras large and small this season.  Other works, from Liquid Interface to Mothership to the Violin Concerto, continue to keep my publisher busy.  With all these, my efforts to bring the music to different audiences began before the first notes were written and continue to this day:

First off, have a good premiere.  That means, in essence, spend a lot of time writing the piece.  Even with a prestigious orchestra, symphonic commissions are not movie scores, and composers so often accept every project in order survive.  But unless you’re writing in self-replicating style (say, indie-rock-infused post-minimalism), you can only write a few orchestral works.  For me, a symphonic project needs at least a year from conception to double-barline.  There’s the pre-compositional work, which in my case involves a great deal of fantasizing about wild forms and new sounds.  There’s the composition itself, with all its wonderful and annoying twists and turns.  And there’s the post-compositional stage, with the crushing task of orchestrating (and, in my case, sometimes a great deal of electronic mastering).  The symphonic field, with its legion of picky performers, quickly sniffs out whether a work has been given due time.  Go slow.

Then, it’s important to polish and buff the piece after the premiere.  This seems obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to snuggle up again to a new work after spending a year on it.  But I’ll venture that no symphonic work, not a single one, has ever survived a premiere without some edits.  With Alternative Energy, I made all manner of edits to the blues fiddle solo in the first movement.  Now it really pops, even with a junk percussion ensemble and the orchestra chugging beneath.  But that’s with the benefit of hearing it many time, from the premiere to tours in California, Michigan, and New York.  My rule is that I should change the parts if I have to tell an orchestra the same thing more than once.

Next it’s time to think small: a piece doesn’t enter the repertoire only through the Big Five.  I’ve been extremely fortunate to have long-term relationships with the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies, but I still put the same importance on the fifth performance with a small orchestra than in a flashy premiere.  Regional orchestras teach you a lot about how the piece will sit with musicians on a lean budget, in front of audiences with a little experience with new art.  (This is particularly important for works with electronics: if you can make it work on a shoestring in a small town, you can do it anywhere.)

And besides, the symphonic world is a family, and each branch of the family tree can bring your music into contact with future collaborators.  The Mobile Symphony, for example — which is playing Liquid Interface in November — hosted me many years ago as their composer-in-residence.  But before that, when I was just a teenager, they performed my first orchestral work.  There’s a long list of those kinds of relationships, from Winston-Salem Symphony to Oakland to Richmond to Phoenix (which has performed more of my music than anyone).  Between my distributor, my management, and me, those groups and many others are always update-to-date with my new work.

Lastly, be real and have good friends.  Riccardo Muti has become a friend and important collaborator; so has Robert Moody.  The latter commissioned my first piece, took it around the country, and has continued to program my music as he’s risen to new heights.  Both are Southern in their own way; both appreciate a letter and face-to-face time.  Michael Tilson Thomas has become a close friend and a cherished inspiration for new work — and I also value his counterpart across the Bay, Michael Morgan at the Oakland Symphony.  The latter is performing Mothership this season and has programmed several works over the years.  With both Michaels, I’ve stayed interested in everything they are doing, not just my music.  It’s easy in a world of Twitter and Facebook to only think about our own lives, but having a genuine interest in others serves one personally, artistically, and professionally.

And crucially on this journey into deep orbit: turn on your radar.  A website should act as a map for orchestras, presenting your catalogue very simply and cleary, with short clips and specific info.  Now that I’ve become a curator, constantly hunting for new music for the Chicago Symphony and for Mercury Soul, I’ve become very appreciative of clarity.  So, in a nutshell: write hard, edit much, and let your friends know.  With some luck, that can lead to new ones.