Saturday 19 May 2012

Man Carrying Thing

For reasons I can't explain, I found myself, at morning coffee, thinking about Wallace Stevens' line from "Man Carrying Thing" which goes "The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully."

Stevens is one of my very favourite poets, for many reasons.  His language is simple, but beautiful.  It is clipped, but rhythmic and lilting.  Most of all, the thinking is incredibly abstruse, obsessed with the differences between surfaces and substance, reality and imagination.  It is almost phenomenological.  I enjoy the feeling I get when I read a poem which satisfies my visceral desire for words, but challenges me with ideas.

For years, I thought I disagreed with his line, and re-quoted it as "The poem must resist the intelligence / Only just successfully."

This morning, I realized, in one of those moments of understanding, that I was confusing poetry with music.  Or more exactly, I was thinking about poetry, particularly Stevens', at the boundary between words and music.  Great poetry becomes music at some instant.and great poems flicker back and forth between poetry and music.

Music must resist the intelligence only just successfully.  Even works in which the primary goal is not visceral, like Boulez' Structures or Cage's 4'33", should provoke a "pleasure" response which we do not fully understand.  I am not speaking here about pop music, most of which is designed to be almost totally visceral, although I think an argument could be made with pop music as well.

Is there a limit on how far away from the intelligence art can get before it becomes gibberish?  Are Ezra Pound's Cantos brilliant poetry or indecipherable, solipsistic ramblings?  I really don't know.  If I read one in which he references his own past without explaining it, quotes some ancient Greek, and flings out disconnected and unexplained imagery, is it possible for me to enjoy it?  Are the moments of completely opaque reference truly out of reach, or do they somehow suggest, in a non-conscious way, the experience Pound was trying to convey?

Poetry can do this.  Film, occasionally, can do this.  Music and architecture, it seems to me, depend on this.

Perhaps the coffee was too strong.

Man Carrying Thing
The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:
A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists
The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived
Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,
Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,
Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.
-Wallace Stevens

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Sending a Score Part Two

So you sent a score to a Canadian orchestra...

Part Two:  Mechanics

It is a simple fact that very few scores sent to orchestras ever get seen by the Music Director.  There are many reasons for this.  For one thing, as I said in Part One, most larger orchestras get many unsolicited submissions per week.  In addition to this, Music Directors are very busy.  Most maintain a schedule of meetings, rehearsals, and travel which would probably kill me.  And there is also the fact that, sadly, there are many people out there who are convinced they are composers who really are not.  I cannot tell you how many submissions I have seen from people who bought Finale or Sibelius and so are now composers, or from people who somehow patched together 16 bars of a waltz for piano in C major who want the TSO to play it, or from people who have retired with large pensions who have decided to play at being composers, or from people who are just plain disturbed.  There is a vetting process at every orchestra which is designed to keep the MD's time from being wasted.

However, someone looks at every score that comes in.  In orchestras with a Composer In Residence, it is the CIR who does this.  My situation is unique in that I am not actually a CIR, I am the Composer Advisor, which means I do the administrative things like vetting scores without getting a commission every year.  TSO is a unique situation, as is the National Arts Centre Orchestra, where the Awards Composers are not actually engaged in any administrative work.  But someone in each orchestra sees submissions, either a composer or an artistic administrator.

The presence of a CIR can be positive or negative, depending on the person involved.  I will at a later time post my thoughts about the upside and downside of the CIR programme.  For now, I will just say that some composers are capable of being very objective and some are not.  I pride myself on having adapted to various MDs, recognizing that they are all different and will have different tastes and perspectives.  This has meant that I have brought forward music of every type at one time or another.  I know that there have been situations in which the prejudices of a CIR have prevented this.  There is nothing we can do about this.  If you recognize that you have a conflict with a particular CIR who is not going to be objective, it may be a waste of time to send a score to that orchestra.  On the other hand, as I pointed out in Part One, you are probably very paranoid about rejection.  Don't assume that a certain CIR will not be totally objective because a) you don't like their music and b) you've heard bad things about them.  If you don't know for sure, assume that you are dealing with a professional.

Certainly the artistic administrators are professionals.  They generally have a strong musical background, and understand what their MD is likely to be looking for in a piece of music.

Not all orchestras will return your scores, so be sure to indicate whether or not you want it back.  Don't send it in without saying so, and then phone 6 months later and ask for the stuff back.  It may be gone by then, and it won't be the orchestra's fault.

Send professional work.  Do not send badly copied scores.  The visual impact of the score is important.  A poorly copied and/or poorly photocopied score says "I'm an amateur."

If possible, send a good recording.  Yes, of course CIRs and MDs and most AAs can read scores, but the MD does not have a lot of time to review things once they have gotten that far in the process.  In my experience, the MD will want to listen to excerpts.  If something catches his or her ear, they will ask for a score.  Make sure the recording is well done.  Sometimes, a bad recording can be prejudicial.

A word about MIDI:  it's terrible.  I have actually seen MIDI recordings destroy a work's possibilities for performance.  Of course the music is absolutely clear in your head, and of course you know the MIDI doesn't represent the actual orchestral sound, but think about this:  you hear a new work for the very first time, it's unfamiliar to start with, and you are hearing it with cheesy fake sounds and artificial "interpretation."  What is your impression of the piece likely to be?  MIDI can be useful if you deliver a new work to a conductor and he needs to learn it.  But it is not a good idea to send MIDI.  Some of the more clever composers I have seen send a score with a note that a MIDI recording is available if requested.

Be realistic about what you submit.  See Part One on general rules.

Don't try stratagems.  The American composer David Del Tredici once sent a score to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  Across the cover was scrawled:  "Jukka Pekka!  Great to see you last week!  Here's that score you wanted!"  This seemed very suspicious to me, as I couldn't imagine music more inimical to Jukka Pekka Saraste, so I asked him if he even knew who David Del Tredici was, and of course, he didn't.  Not a good way to start a relationship with an orchestra.

A general word about the internal dynamics of the orchestra:  if there is a CIR or equivalent, odds are that everything that has to do with new work will end up on his or her desk.  Notwithstanding the personality conflicts which might exist, do not try to do an end run.  I cannot tell you how many times composers have written letters to complain about me which have ended up on my desk.  It doesn't matter if you send them to the MD, the CEO, the board chairman, the AA, if it's new music, it ends up on my desk.  Ironically, once or twice, composers whose music I fully support and intend to take to the MD have written snide letters directly to the MD intimating that I am not to be trusted.  These letters all end up in my hands.  The same is true in most situations where there is a CIR.  Sometimes, you may have direct access to a MD, in which case you have the option of pitching a work directly.  Sometimes this works, as there is no substitute for a personal relationship.  But it is professional courtesy to then let the CIR know.  Remember that the MD liking a work is a good start, but it does not guarantee a performance.  There are many other factors at play, and the CIR is one of them.  The best CIRs are objective professionals who understand the complexities of getting music played, and take offense only at being blindsided.

It is okay to follow up, but don't be a pest.  At the TSO, for example, we do score review two or three times a year at most.  It's an all-day job.  We are as prompt as is possible.  Don't send a score and call two days later to find out when it's being programmed.  Two months is a quick turnaround time.  Remember, all major orchestras programme at least two years in advance.

Remember that not all rejection is rejection.  There are many, many works which the MD believes in for which we cannot find a suitable home.  These remain on a shelf and in our minds, but may never get programmed, despite their merit.

Final advice:  stay in the game.  A Canadian composer submitting music to a Canadian orchestra will be taken seriously.  Your work will enter a whirlpool of programming possibilities, and if a suitable arena opens up, it might be programmed.  Most of the Canadian content on the TSO's current and coming seasons has been in our minds for several years.  Make yourself known without being a pest.  Recognize the needs of the orchestra.  Be realistic, be patient, and be confident of your vision.  

Or turn away from orchestra music and embrace the world of the new music ensemble.

More to come.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

So you sent a score to a Canadian orchestra....

Part One:  Rules of Engagement.

After years of experience with orchestras across the country, and after many questions and comments and complaints from composers, I thought it might be useful to post some observations, advice, and suggestions on the complexities of dealing with orchestras.

The orchestral environment is a complicated one.  Many composers do not feel the need to have anything to do with orchestras.  Many others, after their first experience with an orchestra, decide not to go back into the environment.

The situation is a little awkward, because, as professionals, we need major exposure, and nothing except opera gives more high profile exposure than orchestral music.  Even a composer like John Tavener, known almost totally for his vocal music, had to have an orchestral success with "The Protecting Veil" before he became internationally known.  And it was, I believe, the only purely orchestral work he had written at the time.  But this is about career, not art.  The two are undeniably linked:  to be the best artist you can be, you need to be free to undertake the projects you are passionate about.  To be in this position, you need to build a substantial career.  But unless you really need the orchestra, it might make sense to look elsewhere to fulfill your artistic vision.

The lesson is simple:  the orchestra world has an internal life of its own.  If you don't like it, don't engage it.  I always cite the example of Ligeti.  After the first several orchestral masterpieces, he more or less completely turned his back on the orchestra, preferring at most a chamber orchestra for the violin and piano concertos and the final Hamburg Concerto.  Here was a composer who could have picked up the phone and called any orchestra in the world and told them he wanted to compose a new work for them.  Any orchestra would have moved heaven and earth to get a new work from Ligeti.  But he seemed to have no use for the ensemble any more.

If you have decided to pursue orchestral composition, there are a few basic "rules" to keep in mind when starting out.

Basic rule 1:  you will never succeed in bending an orchestra to your will.  Do not imagine even for a minute that you can "demand" anything from a professional orchestra.  Orchestras are living organisms, with complex internal structures which are generally invisible from the outside.  The dynamics which guide activities are opaque.  It is safe to assume that the Music Director is in charge of everything musical, but even the MD has to make adjustments.  All artistic organizations depend on the synergy of the artistic director and the administrative director.  They exist in a symbiosis:  the MD envisions artistic projects, and the General Manager (or equivalent) figures out how to implement them.  Not all things are always possible.

Basic rule 2:  you will have to earn the trust of the orchestra, from the MD, through the players, and into the administration, to arrive at a point where you have the artistic freedom to do whatever you want.  No orchestra is going to commit to a massively complex (and therefore expensive) project with a composer they don't know.  The history of every composer I can name with orchestras has evolved over time.  I myself wrote my first work for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as part of their now-gone Evening Overtures series, a pre-concert series devoted to chamber music.  Then I was commissioned for a short work for a young peoples' concert.  Then I was asked for a longer work for a casual concert.  Gradually, I gained their trust, and when the time came for my Second Symphony, I asked for and received a full 2 1/2 hour rehearsal to workshop the piece.  You have to work your way up to that grand opus.

Side rule:  have a calling card piece.  Don't send your 45 multi-media masterpiece to an orchestra who have never programmed your work and expect them to fall all over themselves to do it.  They might-- lightning does strike from time to time.  But it's not likely.  Send a short work, 4 to 10 minutes long, ideally with a good recording,  If it works as an opener, even better.  You would be astonished to find out how much effort orchestras put into finding decent openers.

Basic rule 3:  conductors, conductors, conductors.  No orchestra imposes repertoire on a conductor.  They may ask a conductor to programme a work, but the conductor can always refuse.  Music Directors are in a slightly more complicated situation, but even they can ask a visiting conductor to undertake it instead.  By far the most direct way to get a work programmed is to engage a conductor.  If you went to school with someone who goes on to conduct, you have a good connection.   These types of connections build careers.

Basic rule 4:  soloists are problematic.  Every orchestra will hire soloists based on the expectations of their audience.  Your uncle Otis might be a great bassoonist, but he is never going to be a soloist with the Montreal Symphony.  Don't pitch a concerto with him to a major orchestra.  And if you do manage to interest a high profile soloist in your work, don't do the old get-me-the-gig-and-I'll-play-your-piece routine.  If you tell the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that Superstar X wants to perform your violin concerto with them, the first thing they will do is speak to Mr. X's management and ask a) if this is true and b) would he rather play your concerto or the Mendelssohn.  Remember, big name soloists cost money, which means the orchestra has to sell tickets.  Your concerto with a major soloist might sell on the basis of the soloist, but standard rep will sell more, and the orchestra needs to recoup the costs.  And believe me when I say that a major soloist playing a new work will cause many, many letters of complaint and threats about canceling subscriptions.

Basic rule 5:  patience.  As a composer myself, and after years of dealing with composers and teaching, I can tell you that composers are not very bright.  We are blinded by ego.  We truly believe the music world needs us desperately and that we are right about everything.  Anything perceived as a rejection can set us off on tirades, letter-writing, name-calling, and a lot of other unhealthy things.  Believe me when I say that no orchestra in this country is aggressively excluding your work from their programming.  Canadian orchestras need Canadian repertoire.  They look for it constantly.  But it must serve their programming needs.  (See "Basic rule 2" above.)  In my situation at the TSO, I have had scores submitted which I considered very interesting, which I took to the MD, but which simply couldn't work in the programming plans at the time.  In several cases, these works continue to sit on the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity, which may or may not come.  But at least the MD is aware of them.  Do not start writing letters of complaint.  Do not tell interviewers and conference attenders that orchestras are not really interested in new work.  Do not attack orchestras' commission applications on juries.  The dynamics behind the scenes are far, far more complex than you can imagine.

More in Part Two.