Interviews with Molly Sheridan
ACO's Orchestra Underground opens its 2008-09 season on November 14 in Zankel Hall. On the program are a world premiere of Chamber Symphony by Clint Needham and the NYC premiere of Finishing by Gregory Spears. Both are the result of the ACO's Emerging Composers Readings Programs. Needham won the 2007 Underwood Commission after his work was read by the orchestra in the Underwood New Music Readings sessions. Spears' work was read during the ACO/Penn Presents New Music Readings & Lab in 2007. Molly Sheridan sat down with both of them to learn how they came to write for orchestra, the anxieties and rewards of what it's like for them to hear their works performed by an orchestra for the first time, and more.
Molly Sheridan: When did writing for orchestra become something you wanted to do?Clint Needham: Orchestral music is what made me want to be a composer. I remember listening to orchestral works by Haydn, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn when I was in middle school and thinking to myself, that's what I want to do. I have really never wavered from that ideal because I think the power of the orchestra is unmatched by any other musical ensemble. I love the drama an orchestra can convey and the sheer power it can generate. Historically, orchestral music has had the most impact on a large population of concertgoers, and I think this still holds true today.
MS: What lessons did you take away from the ACO reading sessions in 2007?
CN: The ACO reading session showed me exactly what my music was, for better or for worse. What I mean by that is, here you have a professional orchestra and a professional conductor working on your music. There are no more excuses for how your piece turns out that don't directly reflect on you the composer. The readings were certainly an eye-opening experience that showed me how much work I still have to do, especially in terms of orchestration and notation. These two aspects are particularly important for the orchestra because if they cannot clearly understand or read your music then the audience has no chance.
MS: For those who have never had to withstand sending their art through the reading process, how does that work?
CN: The orchestral reading process is stressful but extremely exciting. A few days before the reading session, I was obsessed with things like: Did I make errors in the parts or in the score? Will the orchestra members, audience, or panel hate my piece? I built up the event so much in my head that I was worried that this reading could make or break my career. That being said, ACO does an amazing job making the reading sessions less intimidating by having them be very educational. After the sessions, we met with members of the panel (composers Robert Beaser, Yehudi Wyner, Derek Bermel, and Tania Leon; conductors David Alan Miller and Paul Lustig Dunkel) and talked about things that were good and not so good in our pieces. More importantly we discussed how to fix those things on the spot. We also talked about how to approach an orchestra and conductor in a rehearsal setting in order to maximize time, which has proven to be a very helpful tool to have. In addition to the panel discussions, we were fortunate to sit down with various members of the orchestra to get feedback about our parts. They gave us wonderful input about the look of the part, playability, practicality, etc.
MS: As a composer, what's it really like to sit in the audience and hear the orchestra play your work for the first time?
CN: Sitting in the audience, listening to your own work being performed is the most exciting and nerve-racking experience I have ever had, and the fact that the concert is in Carnegie Hall only intensifies that. I cannot concentrate on listening to my piece during a performance. I always find myself neurotically focusing on things like coughing in the audience, or how the audience reacted to a certain section in the music. If something goes wrong in the orchestra then I obsess over that problem, no matter how large or small it was. Maybe I should take a Valium before the concert! After the performance I can usually relax, and I really enjoy talking with the audience members about what they think about the piece. I will be honest; I really enjoy it when audience members tell me how they have connected with the piece in some way.
MS: The ACO will premiere your Chamber Symphony in November. A listener wouldn't know it from the title, but you've said that you drew some of your inspiration for this commission from the presidential race. How did you use that as you created the piece?
CN: I always struggle with titles. In recent pieces I have opted for general titles for the whole work, and if there are movements then I will give each a descriptive title. This idea is not original with me, but I feel that each movement can then be an independent expressive statement that "thematically" does not necessitate a relation to an over-arching title. That being said, I almost gave this work a title. I am a big fan of Talking Heads and thought that something like their song title "Life During Wartime" would have been appropriate for this work because of the literal wars we are fighting and the political war and divisiveness going on during this election.
The first movement not only musically suggests an aggressive and angry tone characterized by one campaign in particular but also foreshadows in my mind the out-of-control path that we may expect if that candidate is in fact elected. I do this by having the work relentlessly propel forward in terms of tempo, volume, use of metal and employing an increasingly aggressive tone throughout the movement.
While I was finishing up the first movement my grandfather died, and his passing had an enormous impact on my view of the character of the second movement, which originally was to use a much more unpleasant harmonic palette. In a way his death gave me a more hopeful view of the political environment since he was a World War II veteran from the South who always insisted that people only be judged based on who they choose to be, not what they look like. This attitude and his memory are the driving forces behind this movement and in a large way helped me decide to not give the work a title.
The third movement, which was written first, is a hopeful, as well as sarcastic musical commentary on the political race. I have attempted to incorporate the inspirational vitality the race has spurred, and the media circus that has ensued.
MS: What do we need from orchestras in 2008?
CN: We need orchestras to play and commission the music of today. I think music has always been a commentary on the society in which it was created and current music should therefore be the most heard music. This used to be the case, but somewhere orchestras got really safe and conservative. I hope more living composers' voices will be heard. It's groups like the ACO and others that are leading the way by performing and commissioning living composers. The orchestra is important to my point of view as a composer because of the variety of possibilities. You can have every "kind" of music (solo, chamber, full orchestral texture) in a single piece with a community of people working on a shared vision, and I think that notion is very human and connective.
MS: When you consider your long-term artistic goals, what do you anticipate will be the impact of the work you've done with the ACO?
CN: I really think this experience with the ACO is a turning point, because it brought me out of the safety of academia, which is where I have mostly been working, and forced me to work in the real world with real deadlines and real pressures associated with fulfilling a professional commission. As I said earlier, I had always wanted to write for the orchestra. Ultimately, or ideally, I would like to write mostly for the orchestra, primarily because of its countless expressive possibilities. The opportunity that ACO offers young composers is unmatched. Most of us "young composers" would be thrilled with only a reading session by a professional orchestra. ACO goes beyond this with its dedication to educating composers about the business side of being a professional composer. Additionally, the fact that they offer a follow-up commission is unique and remarkable. Having an orchestra like ACO commission a work from me has given me great confidence in my ability to write for orchestra and that assured feeling is very inspirational. Having gone through a commissioning process with a professional orchestra, I now know more about what to expect in terms of my progress on a piece as a deadline approaches, as well as what to expect when dealing with extra-musical aspects on the business side of working with an orchestra.
MS: Even though we won't see you under the spotlights during the performance, you've already mentioned that you get nervous sitting out in the hall on show night.
CN: Oh yes! And I found out that I am last on the program, so you can count on me being a nervous wreck for the entire concert.
Sheridan: Of all the ensemble types a composer can use when creating
music, what made you first start writing for the orchestra?
I first wrote for the orchestra when I was sixteen, mostly for social
reasons. As a pianist I was tired of playing alone, so I joined the
orchestra and wrote a concerto. It seemed like a very natural thing to
do despite the fact that classical music was not really "on the map" at
my high school. I suppose writing orchestral music brought me into the
fold a bit.
Molly Sheridan: Of all the ensemble types a composer can use when creating music, what made you first start writing for the orchestra?
Gregory Spears: I first wrote for the orchestra when I was sixteen, mostly for social reasons. As a pianist I was tired of playing alone, so I joined the orchestra and wrote a concerto. It seemed like a very natural thing to do despite the fact that classical music was not really "on the map" at my high school. I suppose writing orchestral music brought me into the fold a bit.
MS: The American Composers Orchestra is pretty non-traditional in terms of the repertoire they present and the way that they work with composers. You've participated in a few of the ACO's reading sessions. What lessons did you take away from those experiences?
GS: It gave me an excellent glimpse into how performing organizations put works together with a limited number of rehearsals. I also experienced the difference a conductor can make. Working with Jeff Milarsky has been great. He gets behind a piece, takes ownership, and makes it work. Traditionally readings focus solely on making the composer a good recording of his or her piece. The [ACO's] Penn readings focused more on developing an interactive working relationship between the musicians, administration, supporters, and the orchestra. The weekend-long event culminated in a showing, which brought in an audience and critics to weigh in on the works. This type of model seems closer to how things work in the real world, and it's more fun.
MS: Speaking of the real world, now that you've been through the process of working with an orchestra this closely, how has this impacted your interest in creating more music for the orchestra? Orchestras don't tend to present a great deal of new work, and it can be a real challenge to get a foot in the door—
GS: In order to make interesting music I think it's essential that an orchestra have time to form a friendly and collaborative relationship with a composer. Due to limited interaction between musicians and composers, I think we get a lot of "effective" works but not as many truly adventurous ones, or ones that people really care about. I think that there is a real temptation for young composers to stick to tried and true formulas e.g., the raucous fanfare/concert opener. I've tried to resist this impulse and just write what I hear, even if it means that a piece sits on the shelf for a couple of years. I'm most interested in a listener hearing my composerly accent.
I am thrilled that the ACO sees itself as an organization that wants to take risks. They really value innovation in a world that because of financial constraints resists it. They have encouraged me to stick to my guns.
MS: As part of their concerts in November, the ACO will reprise your work, Finishing, a piece they also presented at their reading sessions last year in Philly. You've stretched this sound world to include things like dog whistles and micro-cassette tapes. Experimentation is not generally an orchestra hallmark. How has that gone over?
GS: If people weren't told about the whistles I doubt that this would strike them as the most experimental aspect of the piece, though admittedly I am fascinated by the strangeness of the sound. One can feel their sound pressing against the eardrum more than one really hears the pitch. In this sense, they can be both very physically present and yet almost inaudible-like distance alarms sounding. It's a weird experience that upsets some listeners. However, if I've done my job right, this strange timbre along with the other added sounds serves a broader purpose: it helps create the uncanny effect of an offstage orchestra playing onstage. This timbral idea reflects the piece's broader attempt to depict 19-century musical materials as ghost—like or distant. One of my teachers-Hans Abrahamsen-is into a similar type of elegiac reworking of Romanticism, using techniques from minimalism and ambient practice. My hope is that the result is more about absence and loss and less about "experimentation" or weird instrumentation.
This sort of tinkering with form, content, and instrumentation is what really gets me excited about composing, and yes, sometimes orchestras resist it. It usually takes orchestras more than a reading session to learn if they can trust a composer. Initially they might think that you are not being serious or respectful of the tradition, or just gratuitous. Hopefully I've won them over a bit at the ACO.
MS: What can you say using an orchestra that's so important to you?
GS: I don't know how to describe it, but I feel like listening to a large orchestra journey through a symphony is profoundly humanizing. I also love the culture that comes along with it. The formal aspects of the concert-going experience fascinate me; it gives the concert-going experience a unique profile, a certain authenticity. I think listening to an orchestra is a very serious thing, and the concert ritual is part of that. I'm always a little disappointed when my friends call classical conventions stodgy or elitist. I wish orchestras would be more proud of their history and traditions.
MS: Even though we won't see you under the spotlights during the performance, you're largely responsible for the sound coming off the stage. Do you get nervous sitting out in the hall on show night?
GS: Usually I'm terrified that there will not be enough rehearsal time. Luckily, the ACO knows this piece well and they will play beautifully. Nonetheless, it's strange not having a direct role in the performance. All that's left for me to do is worry needlessly about trivial things like the [sound bleed from the adjacent] R train adding a bass-drum rumble to the quieter parts of the music. I suppose I should just sit back and enjoy.
Molly Sheridan is the director of CounterstreamRadio.org and the managing editor of NewMusicBox.org, both programs of the American Music Center. She is also the host of Carnegie Hall's Sound Insights podcasts, and her writing appears in publications such as The Washington Post, Time Out New York, and on her ArtsJournal blog, "Mind the Gap."