Notes to self, to be re-read before I write my Philharmonia piece next year:
1. Have one or two good ideas. If you have more than that, save the rest for later.
2. Don’t write any details because no one will ever hear them in Woooooooolsey Haaaaaaall.
3. You don’t need to fill up your allotted time; better too short than too long. Just as in cooking, it’s easier to add stuff than to take stuff out.
Friday night was the Philharmonia/New Music New Haven Concert, or, how the second-years spent their summer vacations. I always look forward to these (I’ve even reviewed them in the past) as it’s the only time the Phil ever plays anything New, and when I was a small, small undergrad, it was really inspirational to see all the cool Older Kids writing such cool stuff. (Unfortunately, now that I’m actually an Older Kid, I realize we’re not particularly cool. Damn.)
The other side of it is that I’ve been secretly plotting my revenge, I mean my orchestra piece, for the past several years now, and by seeing so many other composers run the gauntlet before me, I’ve been able to glean more or less what works and what doesn’t. Thus, the notes to self. The main problem composers run into is Woolsey Hall itself, which was built with a huge organ, not orchestras, in mind. It is essentially a giant bathroom. No matter how fastidiously controlled a performance, every detail is overwhelmed by the acoustics. Not only that, but the orchestra just sounds small, which is a shame because they really play with a lot of gusto.
These handicaps were turned into advantages in Ingram Marshall’s piece, Kingdom Come. In true Ingram fashion (and when I say fashion, I mean fashion) the orchestra is treated more as an atmospheric background for the pre-recorded component, which consists of various Balkan folk singers. Ingram generally builds layers of reverb into his music (either through orchestration or electronic manipulation), so in this case, the hall just added another dimension of moisture, helping the orchestra and electronics to merge. Harmonically, the piece is clear enough so that muddiness was never a problem. Ingram also has a way of fooling with time scales, so that I’m never sure how long his music is. I seriously couldn’t tell whether Kingdom Come was 10 or 25 minutes, and neither would have surprised me.
About the Length Issue. Every time I bring this up with Ingram, he says, “Aren’t you the one who wrote that hour-long piano piece?” Touché. Maybe I’m not qualified to talk about this. But I still feel as though most New pieces I hear are interminable. Perhaps it’s an issue of expectations; I never know how long to expect a piece of New music to last (as opposed to a pop song, which I know will be over in five or so minutes, or a Brahms sonata allegro, which I know will last about 10). This is closely related to the Form Issue, which is that when composers make up their own forms, I usually feel lost in them. I have no feeling of anticipation, and when that happens, the piece loses its ability to surprise.
Last night’s exception to this was when I read Derrick Wang’s apocolyptic-voiceover styled program note for his piece Action [Trailer], I said to myself, “This had better only be one minute and 30 seconds.” Which it turned out to be, and I was quite happy.
Yuan-Chen Li worked hard to solve the Woolsey Issue by really tailoring her piece to the space, which meant putting soloists in the balconies, and using the organ as a sort of reinforcement to the orchestra. Her piece was sonically adventurous and unexpected and I really liked it.
Dan Vezza’s piece was called there was never, never was there so I expected it to be some sort of palidrome. Actually it was in two sections, the first very gestural (kind of reminded me of how toddlers treat pianos just glissing up and down the keyboard in great clumps) and the second totally aleatoric, eventually coalescing around a repeated F‑sharp trombone solo, which went on long after the rest of the orchestra had ceased to play. It was spectacularly weird. I felt bad for John Concklin, the conductor, who just sort of stood there for the second half. Maybe he should have pulled out a kazoo or something and joined in the fray.
I sometimes feel that Ted Hearne’s music is the closest of all my colleagues’ to my own sensibilities, and then sometimes he just goes and does something totally different, which is great. Patriot was definitely one of those pieces. I think it might have been political, I’ll have to ask him about the title. There was a lot of activity through the whole piece, little dissonant brass fanfares and woodwind machinations. I really had the sense that I was missing a lot because of the acoustics, so I’m looking forward to hearing the recording of the concert next week. I also want to ask Naftali Schindler about his piece, which sounded like distorted recollections of West Side Story. He wasn’t at the concert because it was on the Sabbath.