Savor the flavor

Composer Paul Wilson and I just postponed a premiere of Paul’s new piccolo/computer work U.F.O. We were thrilled that we had been invited to play the piece at an international festival. However, cold reality set in – the piece doesn’t really exist yet. Paul is in Belfast, I am in Texas. How would we, in 2 months, put together this work for the premiere in a remote location?

We talked about it. We knew we could do something like the piece, but possibly not really the piece. Paul said he could make some major family and professional sacrifices and try to finish some kind of computer part. If we could find somewhere to rehearse the day beforehand, we’d probably not embarrass ourselves too much.

We realized we wanted to do more than give a passable premiere of a hurried project. This is our third collaboration, and we want to enjoy it, not hurriedly put something together. So, we reluctantly withdrew the piece from the festival, to give us more time to create and realize the work.

Years ago, a baroque flutist confided to me that she loved playing new music, but didn’t have the time. I was a bit taken aback. I thought: “sure, that is why I play new music – I have more time than other people!”

Some time later I came to think she was onto something. As performers of this art, we develop skills to help us efficiently navigate the learning of brand new works. Speed is often paramount; for example, many times I have been called upon to learn works very quickly for a premiere. Having a strong grounding in extended techniques is helpful, as is flexibility with nonstandard notations and rhythms. It makes sense that the more one practices these skills, the more natural and effortless they eventually become.

Many composers strive for speed as well. Sometimes they take on too many projects at once and need to move onto the next one. At other times, the work becomes more ambitious to realize than originally planned (a common occurrence when working with electronics, especially). Composers, like performers, develop techniques to optimize their efficiency in the creation of the work.

With all of this concern with speed and efficiency, we’ve lost the pleasure of the process. Tackling an artistic challenge is immensely gratifying. For the regular new music performer, these challenges can be hard to come by, and perhaps even more difficult to make time for. The economic reality of playing music for money is that performers take on all the paying performances they can manage to squeeze into their schedules. For many, that doesn’t permit learning works over a long time frame, or practicing pieces that might not be performed in months, or even years.

When I taught a “Music after 1945” undergraduate course, I assigned Steven Schick’s wonderful article (and/or book chapter) about learning Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet. I was surprised by the number of students who seemed offended by the difficulty of Bone Alphabet – they were livid! They viewed it as Ferneyhough torturing Schick. I tried to convince them that Schick welcomed and appreciated the challenge.

In Harvey Sollberger’s new work Soli e Scherzi, written for pianist Shannon Wettstein and me, he wrote in the dedication, “As I composed it, I had very much in mind the performing skills of its dedicatee, the Calliope Duo… I’ve known them for years, and know them to be not just fine performers, but performers who relish music that is challenging and that functions on multiple levels; that is, music you don’t just ‘use’ and discard, but music that you live and grow with over a considerable period of time and through multiple performances.”

In a premiere-driven culture, this approach is unusual. Rushing through a project can have unfortunate repercussions. Premieres are usually not the best presentation of a work (this is well documented, by numerous performers). Frequently, adaptions are made to “get through” the urgent premiere, with the intention to “correct” in subsequent performances. It is common that those “corrections” never happen, as the initial version becomes the standard (in the minds of the composer/performer, primarily – it can be hard to un-do the original realization of a piece). Furthermore, I’ve heard highly successful composers, with enviable careers, bemoan their lack of subsequent performances (lots of premieres, but no repeats).

There is much to be gained by prolonging the process of collaboration. Intricacies can be introduced. Being able to “play” with the material leads to experimentation, often with fruitful results. Ideas can be exchanged, and implemented or discarded. Notation can be modified and clarified. For the performer, the benefits are many. Performers are more likely to have a direct effect on the materials and how they are treated. The player can take the time to truly internalize the composition. Having internalized the piece, the performance is even more satisfying (for them, and likely the listeners). Having invested so much time means the performer is likely to commit to many repeat performances (which benefits the composer as well).

Time is necessary for this sort of deep, detailed work. In a culture that venerates quantity (more gigs rather than better gigs), musicians are not accustomed to rejecting exciting opportunities. Sometimes is it the best choice. Postponing Paul’s premiere was an uncomfortable decision, but ultimately the right one.

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