Saturday, September 10, 2011

Orchestral recordings of works

My man Nico Muhly has a great entry on the impossibility of getting recordings from orchestras who have played composer's works. For all the composers I know out there, I know they have experienced the same frustrations! Check it out at
I had a similar experience when the Pittsburgh Symphony did a reading of my work for orchestra, Lake Mývatn. The result of the reading was that I learned a lot, but there was no possibility to take a recording home with me to share with my parents, to discuss with the other composers, or to learn from it.

The catch with the Pittsburgh Symphony is an ironic one- they make a high-quality recording of the reading session that you can go to the administrative offices and listen to, but they will not let a reading session of this nature out into the public for any means, no copies made, etc. I sort of wanted to drag my whole composition seminar to this tiny listening station and make the staff really annoyed at us all standing around listening to my piece one by one. But it's not the admin staff's fault. Like Nico said, and others have commented on, the musicians' union that creates these strongholds on music dissemination does it for the musicians' own good, and sooner or later something will/should/must change, we just have to figure out how to do it and how to make a compromise with larger rule-making organizations that govern orchestras.
Much like other composers, I'm less interested in the orchestra world now and all of its bureacraZy and more focused on writing music for real people in real places and listened to in a non-cutthroat setting. I have little desire to have my works scoffed at or eye-rolled by 60 professional musicians, some of whom care a lot about my work, but some who'd rather never play a note of music that was written after 1905.

Now that I'm a few years and projects beyond my first work for orchestra, I can evaluate what I got out of the project. I had two performances of the piece, the professional playing and the student-orchestra performance. Interestingly, probably due to more rehearsal time, the student version of my piece actually had a lot more heart, and it was the one I enjoyed hearing more. Technically imperfect, a little under tempo, but very colorful.

The Pittsburgh Symphony's version was technically precise, but a bit cold. I could set that aside and listen to the professionals play the music. But then something went horribly awry during the 'performance' of the piece. During my reading, some of the members of the double-bass section had some kind of tiff going with the composer in residence or the conductor at the time, and basically ignored his direction for 'just slightly louder than ppp' and instead played fff. This pissed the conductor (and the composer) off, and they had to stop the piece mid-performance. Then the conductor basically told the bass section they were acting like children, scolded them, gave a big sigh, and the piece started again, but lost its magic, its continuity. Still, polite golf applause at the end for a good work.

When you are a professional player, you are getting paid for playing. I expect you to treat me with some dignity as I am a lowly student who won a competition, I am a good composer! And I have my year's worth of work on the line, being played just 1.5 times for about fifteen minutes, and that's my prize. Oh, and I do get some snacks afterward, thank goodness because I was about to pass out from nervous anxiety.

I do not appreciate having my hard work being taken so lightly that performers would purposefully mis-play the music and the conductor has to stop and scold them. As much as I think the PSO is one of the best orchestras I've heard, I haven't forgotten that about that moment, and how angry I felt. Thankfully that was one hair-pulling experience around a slew of other chamber music performances that were so personal, so cared-for by the performers, that I mostly remember only the best moments. I've heard the PSO play other students' works nearly flawlessly and think sometimes, why did that moment have to happen to me? But it seems pretty inconsequential in the scope of other works and recognitions (hello, year in Iceland) that I've gotten since.

That is my rant about orchestral bureaucracy, better left for its own post and not in Nico's comment section. I'm going to go work on my percussion quartet now.

No comments: