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I want to get specific

from Thursday, September8th of the year2011.

I want to get specific for a minute about something that I think affects a lot of composers and performers (but especially composers). It’s getting recordings of new work, and making recordings of new work, and that whole matrix. I feel like I speak from a place of enormous privilege in this regard, because I have wonderful publishers both in the US and the UK who are attuned to the specifics of this, as well as relationships with two record companies who are easy and willing collaborators. But my goal, in the long term, is to get this fixed for everybody, because it’s a complete nightmare. Let me break it down. Let’s say that you’re a young composer and an orchestra decides to commission you. Wahoo! You spend six months writing this thing, spitting, crying, elated, all that. You haul ass to wherever it is that the orchestra is at. You work with them in a very limited amount of time, rushing up to the stage to investigate an errant bowing in the violas, running to the back of the hall to make sure the bowed vibraphone is speaking loudly enough. Then, it’s the day of the show, y’all. The concert happens, it goes pretty well! You see, above the stage, a few dangling microphones, so it should stand to reason that you should be able to hear a recording of the piece at some point. Not true. What then happens is an unbelievable series of Kafkaesque email threads, out-of-office messages, invented holidays, bizarre threats, secret handshakes. If you’re lucky, and very very persistent, you might end up with a CD of it, along with a note saying that “this never happened” and “don’t tell anybody you have this.” It’s really weird, right?

I understand that there are union regulations about recording work, and also about the way in which recordings can get very easily exploited. However, I think that I speak for a lot of people when I say that the things young composers want to do with the recording of their orchestra piece are: (a) send it to their mom, (b) be able to play it for other composers/musicians in either an academic or social setting, (c) listen to it privately to see if they can learn anything from it, and maybe, maybe (d) put it up on their website. I can see why an orchestra would have an objection to (d), but the other 3 things seem pretty much fair-game to me, especially (c). Let me also, for those of you not fully immersed in this world, explain something about orchestra music.

If you went to Juilliard, as I did, chances are you will have written an orchestra piece and submitted it for a once-monthly orchestra reading. When I was there maybe it was twice a semester or something? Anyway, what happens is that it’s 9 in the morning, everybody’s bleary, they read through your piece, a whole bunch of cobwebs and bats and shit come flying out of the closet because writing orchestra music is really complicated. There’s a big step between writing for, say, a quartet-sized ensemble and a fifty to sixty-piece orchestra. The way line works is different, blend is different — it’s a huge learning curve. Okay, so you have thirty embarrassing and exhilarating minutes. Maybe the next year, you do this again. Then, when you’re older, you submit a piece for the orchestra concert, you win the competition, and your piece gets maybe three hours of rehearsal over 2 days, and then the show. This is, it should be said, not a complaint about any of this, but just the reality of the situation. When that concert happens — when it’s really your first time dealing with an orchestra, you sort of leave your body and barely listen. It’s the recording that lets you double-back and realize that maybe that bass clarinet shouldn’t be doubled by all the celli, but only half. It’s the recording that allows you, even more importantly, to realize that all the incredibly intricate string details that would sound like £1,000,000 in a chamber setting sound like insects in the acoustic of an orchestral hall.

So, the moral of the story is, getting a recording of your piece is really, really important. I know that I listened to the two pieces I wrote for the Juilliard orchestra obsessively with the score, and without that process, I wouldn’t be half as facile as I am — or confident, or comfortable — writing orchestrally now.

Something really maddening happened to me in the past. I was dealing with an orchestra and we had very, very limited rehearsal time. It was the end of their season, everybody was tired, it was kind of a mess. The first orchestral rehearsal I had my little desk set up with my phone out (to keep notes on), two sets of scores, a million pens, etc. The rehearsal, shall we say, left a lot of room for improvement. I experienced some classic Orchestral Sasstalk:

Me: Hi, so can the bass clarinet just play out a little bit more in bar 91?
Bass Clarinet Dude: I just don’t think you’re going to hear that.

(Suffice it to say, not only could you hear it already when he was playing it pp, despite its f marking, this is not the way that conversation is meant to go).

The other thing about rehearsals is that one tends not to give brass a hard time for flubbing high, exposed passages. Brass instruments are like those crazy dragons from Avatar or whatever; it’s some kind of spiritual connexion that has to be achieved between the lips and the metal and sometimes you just aren’t going to get that at 10 AM on a Tuesday morning. So I happily ignored some brass peccadilloes. Strings: a rhythmic passage (let’s say it’s about as hard as the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements in terms of counting) was a disaster. A little stroll down the stands revealed that only the concertmaster had slashed his bars (as in, showing the sub-beats to make reading the passage simpler), which, of course, was the problem. It would be as if New York City only put street signs every ten blocks; unless you know the city by heart, you’re going to need to remind yourself which is 8th and which is 9th. Anyway, that was kind of maddening, and the whole experience was pretty disillusioning and heartbreaking and awful; my reaction to a bad rehearsal is never “I hate those musicians” but it’s “I must be such an awful composer, and an awful person, that I can’t get these people to commit to this music.” At the end of it, though, came the amazing thing. Somebody from the music office said she wanted to talk to me. Oh, I thought, maybe they’re going to apologize for that not-great showing. Not so much. Apparently one of the musicians in the orchestra had made something akin to a formal complaint that I had recorded the rehearsal! Evidently, he thought that he had heard a noise coming from my iPhone that sounded as if I had been playing back what they had just played? Ooooooooooooooooooooh girrrrrrrrrrrllllllllll. It was at that time that I lost my mind. There are so many things wrong with that. I had to check myself, because what I wanted to say was, “Yes, I recorded it, because what I love to do in the evenings is draw a lukewarm bath, slit my wrists, and listen to adults sight-read my music worse than children through my phone’s speaker.”

I should also add that this organization — whom I love! – has the opposite of sent me a recording (which I know exists because I have Beheld It) of the multiple performances they’ve done of my work. In fact, the woman I attempted to (politely) hound about it, and whom my publishers also (politely) hounded, ignored our emails, until such a time as it was revealed that she had left the organization, presumably to avoid the task of slipping the CD into the mail? I mean: I get it. Shit is bureaucratic, who knows about the rights issues and nobody wants to run afoul of a musicians’ committee. But in this case I would have accepted the secret handshake, because I want to do better next time.

I am really pro-Union for musicians. I appreciate all the protections that are in place against musicians inadvertently having their work exploited in ways beyond their control. I also understand that musicians are insanely underpaid if you consider how much time it takes through practice, school, etc. to be in a professional orchestra, or semi-professional orchestra, or really to be getting paid for music-making at all. This model, though, is totally fucked. The idea that a professional musician, after a pretty bloody rehearsal, would be most concerned with whether or not the composer recorded it on a cellphone is a misprioritization on every level. If I had been recording it, the point would have been for me to sit at home obsessively going over the score in order to make myself a better composer, and better able to write better music for that same player in the future. Everybody wins if, after a concert, the composer gets a nice CD with the logo of the orchestra on it. The alternative is some James Bond shit: little Edirol recorders hidden in duffel bags, hiring a friend to sit in the hall and “check for balances” whilst propping a device on the knee. Nobody wants that. Loosening up the recording contracts is going to be an investment in getting higher quality orchestral music written across the board, because writing for orchestra is always learning on the job.

I want to give you a recent example. Excellent Conductor X conducted the Y Sympherny and soloist Z in this concerto I had written for the occasion at an outdoor festival. The rehearsal was cool — about forty-five minutes, we worked out some balance issues that you are always going to have with concerti. The dress rehearsal was basically a run and some notes: again, totally cool, totally professional. Everybody sounded awesome. Perfect showing at the concert from X and Y and a stellar performance from Z. Microphones all over the place, broadcasting the concert onto the lawn for picnickers. During the show, I was sitting there inside, nervous as anything, trying not to twitch. I was listening, but I was not listening. I was paying attention the same way you pay attention to a movie you’ve seen before.

Afterwards, you’d think that because of the microphones, it would take about thirty seconds for somebody to be like, hey, here’s a link to a Dropbox file with your piece recorded in it! The point of my owning that recording, by the way, would be to listen to it privately, and figure out what I could improve with it. I’d also send it to my mom. I wouldn’t put it online, obvs. I’d play it for the friend who introduced me to Z so many years ago at Juilliard, because that seems only polite, rather than the email I sent her being like, “you should hear this piece! But you can’t! Haha! Nobody can! Only the people who were there!” So now, we’re in the Email Thicket. Words I have heard: $200, Impossible, Working On It, Cassette Tape (!). On the other hand, I walked into the St Paul Chamber Orchestra just now and immediately signed a waiver saying that I can get a high-quality CD of the piece as long as I don’t put it online! Wa-hey! Let’s choose model b! And I’m secretly wishing somebody would send me a cassette tape.

I’d love to know what I, and other composers, can do to encourage all organizations to work with composers to ensure that we can continue working and learning based on live experiences. Leave me a note up in the comments.


  • […] Nico Muhly on composers encountering difficulty hearing recordings of their own compositions. […]

  • As a devil’s advocate for performers:

    I see a lot of composers rallying their support and agreement here. Lovely, but please make sure y’all don’t forget that performers have rights for a really good reason, and at the end of the day, we’re all trying to balance making art and paying the bills.

    I understand your frustration. You just want to refine and polish your craft. My choristers would love to do the same–it’s so vital to observe and listen to your product in order to listen critically and grow–but archival recordings are simply not legal.

    If my choir were performing a Nico Muhly piece, we’d have to pay you and/or your publisher for recording your piece, via mechanical licensing, even if we didn’t sell the recording or upload it on a website. This is the legal right of the copyright holder of the music. We simply have to pay.

    Conversely, if you want a recording of your work, it is the right of the performers to be compensated fairly. When using unionized musicians, pay them the standard rate, or bargain with the union reps before the rehearsal/performance process begins. It’s their right as performers. They are professionals, and they are doing their jobs. You said, “I understand that there are union regulations” and “I am really pro-Union for musicians.” Well then, show them your support. Financially.

    Simply put, it’s not your right to have a recording of other people playing your music any more than I have a right to have a recording of my ensemble singing someone else’s music. Life costs money. If it costs too much for you, ask for that amount of money when you are negotiating and contracting your commission with the orchestra.

    Yes, it sucks, but that’s how it works. You make money off of me, and I make money off of you; but in the end, you win. You get royalties when I buy your scores. You get royalties when I perform your (absolutely fantastic) music. You get royalties when I record and distribute a CD with your music on it. In this economy of reduced ticket sales and slashed funding for the arts, performers and ensembles are lucky just to break even at the end of the day.

  • I advocate for a radical rethinking of how we at orchestras handle media, and your perspective is an invaluable one in this area:


    For what it’s worth the ensemble I lead [WCFSO in Iowa] makes all performance recordings of new works available not only to their composers but also – at each composer’s discretion – to the public online.

    Now if we could figure out a way to loosen up these publishers …

  • […] Composer Nico Muhly offers an insider’s perspective on the byzantine restrictions faced by orchestral composers seeking access to recordings of their own work. […]

  • Anger at the situation is correct. But anger at the orchestras is pointless and misdirected. They are governed by a contractual relationship with the musicians.

    The reason the musicians have a hard-line contract is because of PERPETUAL ABUSES of “the industry.”

    So the composer gets caught in the middle.

    But assuming that an orchestra should just “not be so strict about the rules” because we live in a new-media age is really naive. Some of the arguments surrounding this topic seem to border on that. “It’s not a big deal, relax, Mr. Recording enforcer” is not a viable solution to this problem.

    Media, information, cultural practices, and the intersections between them are an issue facing society at all corners, due to the internet. Resolving them is going to take time, patience, and a willingness to examine all of our underlying assumptions about what music is, what the music ‘object’ is, what a recording really is, etc.

    There is no easy answer to this, and I urge everyone to strongly resist the temptation to simplify the challenges.

  • Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.

  • […] was thinking more about the aforementioned discussion of composers being denied archival recordings of their own work. Of course it’s detrimental […]

  • Hi Nico ~ This is in response to your “World To Come” post. Didn’t know if you were aware of ‘Symphony of Science.’ John Boswell samples Sagan, Fenyman, Attenborough, Goodall, etc. and makes songs out of what they say. It’s really cool, FYI. Your Steve Reich clip reminded me of it.