Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spring cleaning of the mind

"If you have time this weekend," said Hedi on her way out the door to Estonia with the baby, "It would be great if you could vacuum." That's how all this started. I pulled the damn vacuum out of the closet.

For the past two weeks I've been basking in the warm glow (read: total exhaustion) of a really good premiere. The piece in question was, of course, my horn non-certo Northlands. Tommi was amazing, soldiering through the piece's technical difficulties – mostly the extreme endurance and tonal control the piece requires – without even breaking a sweat. That his performance was also warm, intimate, and touching is as much as any composer can reasonably ask for. The 19 players of the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra also poured their hearts into the performance, after overcoming the surprise of having to shift stylistic gears so many times in the course of one piece.

The best part of the process, as always for me, was that magic moment when the orchestra as a whole suddenly figures the piece out, how it works. This stage comes just before the premiere, and is preceded by 1) an initial, stark shock of terror brought about by confronting the sounding reality of the music you'd only previously heard in your head, at which the inexperienced panic and the experienced confront with grim determination; 2) the critical period of micromanaging dynamics, articulation, and the many cool things you put into the score that simply don't work, and 3) the cautious hope that your piece may not, in fact, be a steaming pile of excrement.

After all that, once everything is worked out and the players have had the piece in their ears enough to pick out the thread (or lack thereof, in some cases), there's an audible, palpable instant in which the piece just seems to lift off the ground, finally running under its own power. It's a moment that always brings a smile of mixed relief and utter joy, one which is more perceptible in orchestral music than in chamber or choral music. I think it has to do with the intense nature of orchestra rehearsal, and the way in which composers participate in that process. With other types of music, we generally come into the preparation of the piece at a much later stage, when most of the technical work has already been done and all that's left are small corrections and interpretation work. With the orchestra, though, we're generally in the room for the entire thing, from the bloody carnage of the first reading to the final product. (I actually went home and cried after the first reading of my first big orchestra piece.) It's thrilling and soul destroying in equal measure, a combination that takes chunks out of my life expectancy, yet which I find intoxicating. Some types of music-making can be more rewarding – I think here especially of working with amateur choirs, and feeling the singers develop a sense of pride and ownership of a piece during the longer rehearsal process. But there's never been a greater thrill for me than working with an orchestra, and as I find myself moving into a phase of writing a lot of music for the medium (more about that anon), I'm reminded of why I wanted to do it in the first place.

The reception of the piece was more positive than most anything I've written. Rather than being put off by the stylistic shifts and, let's face it, the length – 26 minutes is awfully long for a horn concerto – people seemed invigorated by it. The reviews were equally positive, although the recurrent criticism of my polystylistic pieces – too many ideas – came up again. It's almost always a minor comment buried in a generally approving context, but it's irksome nonetheless. First off, it's an easy line to write if you're looking for something to critique: too many ideas, the piece might have been better with fewer of them. (I always hear Tom Hulce's Mozart in my head asking, "Which few did you have in mind, sir?") I imagine the obverse, too few ideas, plagued the early minimalists just as much. It's a critique that deals with a surface aspect of the piece that's generally immaterial to the average listener. Really, if too many ideas were a legitimate weakness, the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto wouldn't be so popular, would it? Second, with regard to my music, it's patently inaccurate. Unfortunately, one needs to go beyond the surface to see it. The stylistic spectrum in my pieces of this type is just an illusion. All the surface mannerisms are derived from a single cell or collection of them. I've always said I'm a mainly tonal composer who thinks like a serialist, and it's true. I'm fanatically obsessed with motivic derivations, something I think I absorbed from studying Mahler, who similarly used motivic and gestural connections to bring a sense of unity across the wildly diverse range of styles he appropriated for his works. So the thought that I have too many ideas crowding into a piece is just wrong. There is always and only one idea. Everything else is smoke and mirrors.

All that said, it was a terrific experience all around, one of my best premieres ever, and I hope there will be more performances. The piece, especially in its pop-influenced slow movement, achieved a balance between simplicity and density, and extroversion and naive intimacy, that I've been trying to strike for some time. Returning to Earth afterward has been a process of some weeks. My mind has been cluttered lately, as has my work desk, which goes from spartan cleanliness to slovenly disorder as each new project progresses. As I had multiple things going during the Northlands process, it got even more cluttered than usual. CDs, photocopied journal articles, books, scores, score printouts, bits of text for choral pieces, and magazines all pile up until the table's legs are the only visible sign that something is supporting the whole mess. If one's environment is a reflection of one's mental state, I was in a state of total mental chaos this past month.

So after breakfast I decided to honor my lovely wife's request before digging into the pile of articles I'd successfully avoided yesterday. She should have known better than to ask me to accomplish a simple household chore. There's a line of manic obsession that runs in my family, especially as concerns house cleaning. With the exception of dishes, I can't do just one small thing. I get into these fugue states in which everything has to go, the dishes, the laundry, the dusting, vacuuming,you name it. Dusting the office/baby's room turns into a blur of desk-clearing, filing, organizing of receipts and general mayhem. "Gee, those hall-of-fame wine bottles from dinner parties past are taking up a perfectly good shelf on the bookcase, I should move them to the top of the case and make room for all my library books..." "Hey, I never moved the Post-Its from the library copy of Strickland's minimalism to my own copy, I should do that and return it..." And so on.

The end result is a clean house and a clean desk, with all the scores I need to steal from study for my next piece laid out, all the Mahler articles I need to get through before Easter put together, my materials for my next analysis class unearthed from the heap. It's a dusting of the mind as well, a product of the scattershot Zen discipline of maintaining my household from time to time, the quiet pleasure derived from doing a simple task with a predefined goal. My mental slate is cleaned and wiped down, purged of all thoughts from previous projects, ready to take on something new.

So what's next? The Big One, that's what.

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