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Dancing out of the office, and more on Gait

from Tuesday, May15th of the year2012.

So I wrote a piece for a ballet this year, which premiered a few days ago at New York City Ballet. I am obsessed with NYCB. The shit was founded by George Balanchine, who is basically my hero; he commissioned so much gorgeous music by Igor Stravinsky, and did a thing where he simultaneously managed a huge organization, navigated The Past, whatever that is, and aimed for The Future, whatever that might be. Balanchine’s choreography is very Simultaneous: you feel like you’re participating in a tradition, as well as witnessing something forward-looking. The company has some of the greatest, greatest dancers, and the hall feels like it was built for dance, and they do much (if not all?) of their rep with live music, and have a resident orchestra — a large one! — and are generally just a great organization.

Here’s a picture of me and Benjamin at a rehearsal:

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The world of ballet is kind of unknowable for me; even though I’ve written four or five of the things, I still never quite know how to navigate the intense etiquette in that community. For instance, on first night, everybody’s meant to take a bow — lighting designers, costumers, composers, everybody. So you end up with all these gorgeous bodies onstage and then a bunch of us lumps, trying to figure out how not to fall into the orchestra pit. Meanwhile all the dancers are wearing Kabuki/Tammy Faye makeup and we’re sitting there with puff pastry on our lapel. It’s odd.

The City Ballet orchestra is funny to me: they’re kind of the Most Entrenched orchestra in terms of unionization in New York, I’d say. They are also a sort of national treasure: New York is, and always should be, I think, a place that does dance with live orchestral music because it is fabulous. There is not a thing better, in fact, than going to see that Nutcracker. I remember a few years ago I supported, as a member of the musicians’ union, their contract renegotiation, which argued, I had thought, that they should be allowed to miss a rehearsal for something like Nutcracker, which they’ve played ninety million times before, as long as they hired a substitute for themselves, and came back and played the show. This is, fundamentally fair; while the dancers need to relearn the piece afresh each year on their bodies, the music for that piece hasn’t changed around in a century or two. I’m not sure if this approach is quite right for a new piece, though; the practical reality of the situation is that every time I looked into the pit it was Totally Different Human Beings playing major roles. The concertmaster and many of the strings remained the same, and we sort of built up a rapport, and those who stayed around got really comfortable with the piece, which is the fun (and perhaps the point?) of rehearsal. Between the the first rehearsal and the first show, we had like three different English horn players? The principal second violin — a big part in this piece! – shuffled around, the harpist (also important) was different. It’s a strange universe, orchestral musicians; I’m not sure I’d like to play a show for which I hadn’t been at a rehearsal. I do like the idea, in a weird, abstract sense, of writing music in which any one participant can hand over her part to another person, like a relay race…although that isn’t quite what I had intended in this piece! City Ballet employed a very good trick which is that they have one arts administrator who is so lovely and friendly one feels terrible cussing him out about Nancy Drew and the Case of That’s Totally Not The Same English Horn, and then somebody else who’s actually more in charge who is a Person Invisible, as in, secret doorways and smoke, and hallways of mirrors, with whom one never quite gets a proper audience. If I write another ballet for them, which I really hope I will, I’ll make the orchestral parts deliberately modular, or maybe even change them each day, so there’s a sense of always being somebody else’s substitute. It’s like that dream where you turn up expected to give a talk about something you don’t fully grasp; sometime there arises a gorgeous spontaneity, perhaps even more gorgeous than what would have resulted through months of preparation. All of this having been said, the orchestra sounded great on opening night and I am excited to see how things develop over the run. I suppose the reason I bring it up at all is just because it’s so foreign to how I normally make music, which is by making things for specific people rather more like a choreographer would.

By the way, google this stuff about the strike in 1999; it’s really really interesting and complicated.

All of this has gotten me thinking about these giant systems that run large arts organizations, and, in turn, about the people who steer those giant ships. I’ve had, in the last few weeks, a real frustration with Out-Of-Office messages. I feel like it’s a form of modern rudeness and laziness combined and, actually, lying that messes with the arts. In my experience, a lot of thought, work, and important corrections happen in the arts between, let’s say, noon on Friday and 11:30 AM on Monday. In a lot of places (*cough* London), those are Drinkin’ Hours, and it is Simply Not Possible to get anybody in a large arts organization on the horn between those times. Maybe you can reach somebody’s very private cellphone, whose number you took down in a fit of drunken gregariousness, but nothing else. The thing that kills me, though, and the thing that happened last week (but also a bunch over the last few years) that drove me basically to the point of feces-smearing insanity was this:

Monday’s a holiday.
Friday’s therefore, an “unofficial half day”
People finish their work twelve seconds before leaving, rushing and misspelling everything.
People post the work on their way out of the door with they coat on.
People turn on an autoresponder being like “call me Tuesday, I’ll be checking email sporadically.”
Their work is nine kinds of fucked up with typos from here to there.

Right? Do you all know this trick? And then you’re like okay. It’s a couple of problems, incompetence in spelling being only one of them. What is “sporadic email checking?” There are very few places in the world where you can’t be actually checking your email. And none of them is a weekend trip from London away. (Actually, there are strangely some corners of London and New York where my internet on my phone doesn’t go, for instance, 110th and Broadway, a block in Dumbo…) Plus, you have like four blackberries; I’ve seen you rudely checking them at inappropriate times. I had a sick mother incident involving hospitals and such a year ago, and believe me when I say that after a few hours of that, the way I can reconnect with the world of the living is to check the shit out of my emails on my iPhone in the waiting room! Yes god. Those were some GOOD emails, if I recall correctly. Also the argument, “What, people don’t get to relax?” My argument: “Not if they’ve misspelled something.” I’ve taken, like, two vacations ever in my life where I didn’t bring work, and even then, somebody sends a Facebook message talmbout “why is there a staccato note tied to another staccato note” and I, at that time, found the internet in Cambodia and logged up onto the server and find the file and answered the question.

The other thing is that it’s not Vacation we’re talking about here. I understand Vacation. I’d prefer an out-of-office thing to say, “My ass? Is going to Phuket surfing for ten days, and I won’t be checking my email. I will contact you upon return.” And do you know what? Truth-telling people who send those kind of auto-responders tend to be so awesome at their job that if something is relevant, they will fix it from Thailand anyway. It goes without saying that those truth-tellers have seriously advanced in the backstages and upstairses of the world’s great concert halls and opera houses, and are going to be running the things by the time we’re all middle-aged. I like feeling that people who run the arts are colleagues — and I mean that from stage managers to set-builders to administrative assistants to box office all the way down and around. (Making operas has really brought this together for me). If we’re all colleagues, we all have to be as committed as possible to getting the best work on that stage, and for me, that involves a little bit of artistic fugueing of the obligations of a 9-5, what a way to make a living, etc. Plus also people who put out these autoresponders are never the speediest emailers anyway; it’s not like one expects them to be instant messaging one all day. Guh. Don’t be those people! Let’s all own this thing together and put in as many extra hours as we can!

Okay /rant.

Gait, this piece I’m writing for the National Youth Orchestra is slowly taking shape. As I’ve written about before, it’s a piece that deals with the way animals move. I started thinking about horses, and have moved on now to insects and humans. Do you know that there are scientists who study the way spiders run? It sounds like a bunch of harps in my universe, by the way, which seems just about right. We’ve entered now the slithering undulating gaits of millipedes (clarinets) and stick insects (bassoons, I think?). I’m going to write out some kind of embarrassing Peter and the Wolf style material and then highly stylize it so it doesn’t end up sounding like a bestiary audio-tour; this stuff is pre-compositional, not compositional, if that makes sense. It means that you invent music that gets thrown out later, as an exercise, in order to teach it to yourself, and then you really compose with it.

I’ve gone down an internet wormhole about human gaits: autistic gaits, Parkinsonian gaits. The son of a friend of mine took his first baby steps the other day, my block was renamed after a friend of a friend who walked with two canes. All of these gaits are going to find their way into the piece in hidden, subtle ways.

As luck has it, I will be writing much of this piece in Australia, where I’m told that every insect and creature that walks is going to attempt to kill me. Wombat gait:

And! Bedroom Community have released a new album of mine: Drones & Piano. It features the wonderful pianist Bruce Brubaker and my constant collaborator Nadia Sirota making the drones. This is one in a series of drone-based pieces I’ve been writing for the last few years. There exists a drone piece, now, for violin, viola, piano, soon one with cello, soon one with marimba. They’re exciting for me, because as a kid I used to sort of obsessively hum over a vacuum cleaner, or industrial noise (fluorescent lights), ambient noise (the throb of a subway station or elevator) and these are stylized, emotional versions of the same. We’ll be releasing them over the course of the next year or so, so keep watching Bedroom Community and this space for more!


  • Aside from your point about amending erroneous work, why on earth should someone be expected to respond to enquiries outside of their scheduled work pattern? Composition is your life’s work, obviously a passion which doesn’t wane simply because it’s saturday afternoon and you’re drunk as hell or whatever, but it’s not theirs. You would need to assume that although your particular enquiries might be valid, if they’ve already spent somewhere around 50hrs or so that week having dung flung at their persõn from various angles by varying types of demanding fool, that they might deserve the opportunity to read their child a bedtime story or make love without being interrupted by a phonecall regarding a minor technical detail within a score or setting. That shit can wait, no?

    My experience is that the irritation of bureaucracy increases with team size and devolved responsibility. Keep teams as small as possible I guess. But be sensitive to privacy. If members of the arts programming and management weren’t such wooly plonkers you probably wouldn’t be so vexed by OoOs though, i’ll give you that.

    [My thought is always that in the arts we all have to be on all the time. Or REALLY off. I just don’t buy the “sporadic email checking” argument; to me it just reads as lazy. Be on or off! But/and thank you for your comment. Organizational structures are the source of constant vex8ion and delight for me! N]

  • Dude, I don’t really think he expects everyone to be ON all the time. Notice the term ‘rant’ used. Just venting frustration because Britain has an annoying habit of taking extra long bank holidays. Any excuse…

    Anyway, I’m loving the wombat gait. I can almost hear the rhythm watching it. Looking forward to seeing/hearing more.

  • In my humble experience, the folks who don’t take long weekends and make themselves available of a Saturdaya/Sunday are the folks who have the pleasure of seeing their dreams enacted. Pace grumpy Dev.

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