Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Taking a breath

I've been silent since coming home from Seaside, dealing with jet lag and struggling out from under the vast mountain of work that was waiting for me on my return. In the past two weeks, I've copied my new choral piece ad puram annihilationem meam, which the Helsinki Chamber Choir is premièring in April, and of which a rehearsal tape needs to be cut so the dancer/choreographer can start working on her part (more on that later). True to form, I was unable to not volunteer to create more work for myself, and it seems I'll be doing some radiophonic work for that concert as well. I've been getting my Mahler seminar off the ground and planning my writing and composing work for the next few months, but the thing that's been dominating my life for the last week or so is the orchestra parts for a performance by the Helsinki Philharmonic of my earlier orchestra piece Of aspens, hills, and shattered dreams, which I wrote for my Master's degree at Stony Brook, and which was performed there in 2001.

The parts needed a fairly onerous amount of revision, and to compound the problem, when I imported them from an older version of Finale, in addition to the notes, the program brought all the problems I vividly remember from the last time I dealt with this music. However, they made on deadline, and I can now return to a normal sleep schedule. As the performance was added to the orchestra's calendar quite late, it kept me from tinkering with the piece too much. Although I'm still quite proud of it, and am ecstatic about my pro orchestra debut in Finland, going through the piece again was pretty traumatic. Knowing way more about orchestra writing than I did eight years ago, I was aghast at some of the ridiculous, awkward things I did in Aspens, and the temptation to mess with it was hard to resist, but for the tight schedule. If I'd had a couple of months, I'd probably have taken the whole thing back to the drawing board.

In retrospect, though, it's probably a good thing I can't work too much with it. It can be counterproductive to constantly revisit one's older works. The urge to smooth out the rough edges, reduce outward signs of naïvety, make stylistic influences less obvious, can easily rob the music of what made it special to you in the first place. At some point, I think, you just have to let a piece be what it is, if it works on its own terms, and damn the embarrassment of long, wordy titles, Romantic outbursts and ungainly bits of orchestration – that nevertheless produced unexpectedly cool effects. Listening to the recording from 2001, which I haven't done in quite a while, brought back some of the feelings I put into the piece, and makes me think there's something in it that I should revisit, a depth of emotion I haven't gotten to in a very long time in my pursuit of a leaner, cleaner, if not necessarily meaner sound; a humanity, however unsubtly expressed at the time, that's perhaps been lacking.

Part of the reason for this shift in focus is that I'm just a happier person than I was back then, more fulfilled, less anxious – if marginally – and don't feel the need to write myself little utopias anymore, or take the weight of the world on my shoulders. A not insignificant part of it is location, which I think has a huge effect of the way one makes art. I live in a less outwardly emotive culture, and it's had its effect on me, a positive one as far as I can see, since the emotional temperature of my music definitely needed cooling when I moved here, although that process had already begun before I left the US. I've been hitting some shades of expression in the last three years or so that weren't available to me when I was younger. But through the trifocal lenses of time, greater maturity and improved technical mastery, it's all too easy to be caught up in the new things you can do and lose sight of the expressive core of your art. It's something I need to bear in mind in the coming year, with anywhere between three and five projects in the offing, that it might be time to come full circle and admit that naïvety back into my expressive palette, as something to take greater pride in.


Schreker, Chamber Symphony
Mahler, Das Lied, Chinese language version(!), Singapore Symhpony with Lan Shui