China G8

from Friday, July13th of the year2012.

Does everybody know the John Adams piece China Gates? I love me some China Gates. I want it to be in the same category of piano pieces that all piano students have to learn, like the Schumann Revérie:

Here is a funny performance with a sassy performance… explication?

So when I was finishing up this piece Gait for the NYO, I wanted there to be a flash of this Adams piece at the very end, a sort of ecstatic vision of the piano piece radically exploded into this enormous orchestra. So, that’s happened. The explosion was so severe that the copyist(s!) had to scheme to make different Sibelius files to fit all the notes on the pages.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what is and what isn’t standard rep. One of the ways composers are taught to write is through constant score study. So, for instance, you hear something you like in a Brahms symphony and you get the score out of the library and figure out how he did it. There is a list of, probably, the better part of a thousand pieces of music whose scores are, I think, assumed to be “known” by composers of orchestral music. With musicians, there are a whole bunch of different itineraries. Obviously each instrument has its own specific catalogue of music that only real die-hards know (the Ney Rosauro marimba music comes to mind), and then there are players who find themselves, for whatever reason, in very specific ensembles (like, it’s a Debussy trio for flute, viola and harp, and such ensembles usually end up needing to commission many companion pieces, and therefore, there is an entire rep of music for that ensemble that is regrettably unknown).

I’m very much of the opinion that any amount of study of really anything will make you a better musician. Three years of Dari in Afghanistan, great, four years of jazz vibraphone, great, great, everything’s great. Learning how to cook Chinese food, that’s great. I’m also a huge fan of canonical learning — it’s nice to meet a musician from China, or Israel, and know that you have a sort of common ground of references. In the last few months, I’ve noticed something, though. I’ve been working mainly with orchestras in New York & London, and while the canonical understanding is firm, there are some funny non-overlapping areas. I’d love to think that all orchestra players would have, at some point, made their way through Harmonielehre, the massive Adams score from the 80′s. I’d also like to think that all string players (with the exception of the basses), would have played Different Trains a few times. (The basses, I’d like to think, would have spent a few wayward evenings learning how to play the viola da gamba, but now I’m getting greedy). Of course, this is a fantasy world, but I wonder if the languages between musicians and composers aren’t drifting slightly.

One of the best ways, I’ve found, to connect with players is to know their rep. Pieces that we, as composers, might find musically dubious are, in some cases, bread and butter for violists, or clarinettists. A perfect example of this, I think, is the Hindemith sonatas for solo instruments. I really don’t like listening to this music. But I know that it’s useful because it makes up a big piece of the viola mental pie. I’m always looking out for the pieces that players keep alive: weird clarinet sonatas, obscure cello trios.

The goal, of course, is for some sense of fluency both in writing and playing. Some rhythms, in the hands of Orchestra A, are like breathing. The same rhythms, in the hands of Orchestra B, are like breathing water. It’s not a comment on the quality of the band, but rather, the musicians’ access to the music that has informed the composer’s world. Similarly, the way we, as composers, learn to write music is through study and by making mistakes. I think this includes studying the music you love, as well as the music musicians love, and orchestras (inasmuch as orchestras are sentient) love to play. If you have a friend in an orchestra, sitting in the back of the seconds, ask her what her favorite music is. Chances are it’s not going to be the same thing as your favorite music, and it might be shocking music, but you are inevitably going to learn something very useful from whatever Ibert concerto she mentions.

I’m in London about to open this ballet Machina, which is part of an outrageously ambitious commission of three ballets based on the Titian Diana paintings. What’s doubly outrageous about it is that it’s a piece for two choreographers; when they first told me about it (two choreographers plus an artist making sets for the first time plus orchestra plus whee), I was like, this is the most facacta thing. But actually it’s great. Conrad Shawcross, has made this gorgeous and elegant robot that sits in the back of the stage like a giant spider, observing and menacing the dancers. It’s gorgeous. Everybody come. Then Iceland for a week then NYO Gait Mania!

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