Hearing music in progress

March 10, 2008


One of the greatest tragedies for a composer is to not hear their music performed live. Charles Ives could have been even more formidable had he heard more of his music, especially the music he took chances with. In college, the biggest hole in my education was brass ensemble. I had written a wild five movement piece for brass quintet and I never heard it played. I also wrote an orchestra piece that featured a lot of brass writing (Nascent Fire) and never heard that either. So I developed being a bit paranoid writing for brass. Even today I write very conservatively for them.

The thought of Schubert entertaining his well fed and slightly toasty guests with his latest songs or sonata has always been an inspiration to me. I always perform my vocal music for my friends after dinner. I don’t do the same with my instrumental music for some reason. Computer playback of absolute music is of limited dramatic appeal — you have to work at listening to it. With vocal music, I’m standing there singing into their faces.

On Saturday, I invited a group of friends — musical and not — and people involved in the production of HOMER IN CYBERSPACE, to our home for a readthrough. I set up speakers in the corner of the living room and Michael Dean and Juliana Gondek sight read their parts (beautifully I might add) and I sang the tricky stuff. Mel Shapiro provided storyline in between songs. Judging by people’s responses, I think we might have a hit on our hands. But then again, music is only one element of a theatrical production like this.

The important part of such readings for the composer, is the opportunity to watch where people tune out. I then come back to those moments and see what was going on. Sometimes it’s just short attention spans. Although this didn’t happen on Saturday, sometimes people will fall asleep. I then have to determine was it the wine? a long week? sitting down snuggling next to your honey and being sung to sleep? or is the music just boring there?

One of the other things that happens as you sing a new song more and more, is that the melody evolves. The rhythms change so that they flow more effectively. Ornaments start popping up. Little slides here and there. Dynamics to pump or attenuate the emotional content. At this point, composers need to write down those changes, or else you’ll be stuck relying on a word of mouth tradition, well known by musicologists and ethnomusicologists.

I felt supercharged after everyone went home. I then sang some of the numbers I had not included. Music, and especially my music, makes me very high. And boy was I hung over the next day. I realized that my body had kicked into overdrive, selling the piece and riding the night’s energy. My body refused to do anything but sit. So I obeyed and had brunch with friends, went to a wedding reception and watched four movies on DVD.

Nice to start to have a little free time again!


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