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ACO Jazz Composers Readings: Days 2 and 3

Day 2 started with a check-in with the mentor composers and George Manahan, violinist Bob Chausow, percussion Jim Saporito, and James Newton, Gabriela Frank, Anthony Davis, and Derek Bermel on the composer’s table. George and I went over tempo variations and a couple of concerns I had about percussion (drumset) lining up with my figures. Bob had a few practical notational concerns, bowing questions, and advice on string techniques. Jim, a “tough-love” kind of guy, pointed out my lack of percussion key in my part. Jim’s advice was particularly helpful, as he is a drummer in jazz, Broadway, and orchestral percussion—all three areas that I am interested in as a composer. It was all immensely practical information. The nerves started to kick in as soon as I realized that I was first for the readings.

As soon as George cued the first downbeat, I was hit with a wall of sound so thick and chaotic that I didn’t recognize it, and the whole thing was over before I knew it. The other pieces went the same way. Gabriela Frank (another Rice alum) was an extraordinary help. She immediately comforted me and gave me some key advice about working up the piece. It was a scary experience—feeling like you’ve created an enormous monster outside of your control—like Mr. Krabs in SpongeBob “The Appetizer!” After the session, we met up with some orchestral musician liaisons from each section that distributed comments from the musicians.

Some of the musicians’ comments came like a punch in the face (one of the players called my inclusion of pitchless breath a “compositional ploy that should be permanently discontinued”) the majority were lukewarm, practical, and terse (“B-flat trumpet would be advisable” or “can I take some of this passage an octave down?”), and a few were complementary (one of the bassoon players compared my piece to a late Frank Zappa synclavier work—perhaps something off of 1994’s “Civilization, Phase III”). It was a lot to take in—there wasn’t enough time to feel proud, hurt, or angry at anything. It was what it was, and I learned from it. Emotional detachment can be beneficial with something like this. Be open to learning!

My friend Guy Mintus in the "Hot Seat."

My takeaways from the first reading:

  • Let musical ideas live and breathe, don’t leave them so fast. On that note, come up with a few really good ideas rather than a bunch of mediocre ones.

  • Start with a very clear musical character—the spirit of a piece. Start with the world you intend to create and go from there

  • Start and end your piece with the strongest material. That’s what people remember.

  • Think of multiple orchestrational options to get the same effect. “Smoke and mirrors” as Gabriela called it. Some instruments and colors have the same spirit as others and can solve issues of duplication, and also be more practical.

  • Polyrhythms are very hard for orchestra! Be careful if you know the orchestra has little rehearsal time.

  • Derek Bermel stressed the importance of both specificity and flexibility of tempo markings—is four clicks slower REALLY noticeable?

  • Things are not “automatically together” in orchestra music. There’s a mechanical difference in which all of the instruments play that contributes to different speed in performance. This makes complex passages more difficult to sound.

  • Don’t let a first run through lie to you. Be patient that things can be rehearsed. It takes time to capture the spirit of difficult music.

  • Pick either clarity and focus in rhythm or ambiguity. Avoid in-between ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity. In other words, don’t be in between clear and “messy.” Commit to one. Lutoslawski and Corigliano are masters of contrasting these two qualities.

  • Two people on a part “dilutes” the sound. On that note, solo instruments can be powerful.

  • For vibraphone, write 4ths and 5ths with 3 voices. Lydian grip sounds are good. Avoid thirds, clusters, etc. Play with index and pinky finger to test out the chord.

  • Natural harmonics are beautiful on double bass, much better than artificial.

  • Be careful of the low-end of an orchestra—don’t add too much to the bass for too long. It can muddy otherwise clear music.

  • Foreground, middleground, background—have these atplay in music. What should the ear focus on out of those three parts?

  • Use the piano in extremes, with the band in the middle.

  • Shape the improv space—be creative with its use.

  • Use technical terms (slow, fast, loud, quiet) for orchestra and more poetic terms in chamber music.

That night, I stayed up in the lovely Belleclaire Hotel on 77th street into the wee hours of the morning working up what’s called an “errata sheet.” I was a bit overwhelmed—most of my edits were omissions and tacets—leaving material out rather than adding material. I took quite a bit of the music down an octave, especially horns and oboe. A first run-through will ALWAYS have you thinking, “I can’t compose!” It just will. Nobody else will feel that but you. Despite a few complaints, my omissions helped for the most part, and the concert was a success. It was fantastic to see my entire extended family and some friends that I haven’t seen in a while at the concert.

Hearing the piece in "composer time"—in my head and under my pen—is different from what Gabriela calls "stage time"—the orchestra performance. What we perceive as the composer working with something for hours is NOT the same as what the audience and performers hear. The piece speaks much more slowly and with more coordination required. Although a cliché, the rule "less is more" resonated strongly after this week. Clear, economic, and precise writing translates better to the stage. My work suffered from over-cluttered passages with too much information at once, confusing the orchestra and listeners. I learned a few powerful orchestration lessons this week that I plan to apply when composing an orchestral work for my Rice Master's Thesis. I’m extremely grateful to George Manahan, the mentor composers, my peers, and the orchestra musicians for making it a smooth process, for challenging me and bringing me all the way back up by the end of the experience.


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