Launching the supertanker

Dec 06, 2010

Last week was about piloting the aircraft carrier, and this week it’s launching the supertanker. No more sea-going vessel imagery after this post for a while, I swear.

“Harmonielehre,” my forty minute welding of romantic harmony to minimalist techniques (the piece that was suggested by a dream of an oil tanker taking off like a Saturn rocket) had a very difficult birth. I have written about that in Hallelujah Junction. But I didn’t actually come out and say just how close to the precipice of catastrophe I led things.

Commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony, the piece was slated to be the main event on a series of four subscription concerts in March of 1985, and the conductor Edo de Waart honored it in advance by giving it the “war horse” position on the program—i.e. the entire second half where everyone’s favorite Brahms or Mahler symphony usually presided.

Funding from Exxon and the Rockefeller Foundation was also in place to make a recording of the piece on the same weekend as the performances, further adding to the weight on me to finish the piece in time.

But “Harmonielehre” was the victim of the worst case of writer’s block I ever endured—eighteen months, in fact—and when I finally found the “code” and started frantically composing I had only a couple of months to grind out hundreds of pages of dense orchestral scoring. Most pages had thirty-two staves, and I went through number five Turquoise drafting pencils at the rate of one a day, my arm aching like an overworked fastball pitcher.

The first rehearsal was on a Saturday morning, only a few days before the premiere. The week before that rehearsal I was still a long way from finishing, and I was chained to my work desk nearly round the clock. A friend from southern California who had worked briefly as a copyist for Frank Zappa came up to Berkeley and moved into a spare bedroom where I set up a table for him to copy parts. With a piece for full-blown symphony orchestra, every player has to have his or her own part—tuba, percussion, piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, etc etc. String parts are reproduced by the dozens to answer for the fact that a large orchestra calls for thirty or more violins, ten violas, ten celli and eight double basses. It’s a huge task of preparation, something that should be completed months before the first rehearsal. Every part needs to be scrupulously proof-read, for there are bound to be hundreds of errors nested in the tens of thousands of notes, dynamics, clefs and other indications that are part of the business of orchestral music.

The charming old stories of Mozart scribbling out the overture to “Marriage of Figaro” an hour before the premiere and dropping ink-wet parts onto the players’ stands may or may not be true, but they for sure are the worst possible model for any composer who hopes to get a decent performance of his or her own music.

In those days proofing and prepping was all pretty much virgin ground for me. Even though I’d already composed several substantial pieces, including “Harmonium” and “Grand Pianola Music,” I was simply not aware of the chaos I was inviting by trying to deliver a huge, sprawling piece about the same length as “Ein Heldenleben” at the last moment.

Several days before the first rehearsal, my copyist friend walked into my studio and announced that he missed his family and was packing it in. He wanted to drive back to Los Angeles. He knew he was leaving me in the lurch, but, well, that was show business, and he had worked very hard. By then I had three other guys in various locations I barely even knew working on the parts. The conductor had called repeatedly asking for the score, and I’d put him off with the old “the check is in the mail” gambit. Finally he said he couldn’t wait any longer and was either going to pull the piece off the program or, even worse, hand over the task of rehearsing and conducting (and recording) it to me. This was an extra burden I did not welcome. I confess I did a desperate thing to head off this crisis: I took a pen and drew an arbitrary double bar on the measure I was working on, photocopied the whole thing and sent it to him by emergency messenger. I suspected he just wanted to see a double bar—any double bar— to put his mind at ease. Whatever, it worked, and I earned myself at least another day or so of grace.

I put down the real double bar on Friday, only hours before the first rehearsal. The copyists were mad at work like Nibelungen and I was working the phones like a manic stockbroker answering their puzzled questions. Time for proof-reading was absurdly short. The three heroic librarians of the San Francisco Symphony stayed awake bleary-eyed until well after midnight, doing a job that the composer and his publisher should have done many months earlier. They caught the most toxic of the copyists’ errors, the kind that would cause a rehearsal of a gigantic orchestra to grind to halt while the conductor and composer huddled to unravel some tangled knot of wrong notes or missing bars.

At midnight on the night before the first rehearsal another copyist bailed on me. He was in charge of the brass parts, but by then he was making so many mistakes it was nearly useless for him to continue.

“Don’t worry,” he assured me, “I’ll take these home, get some shut-eye and get up at 4 AM and have them ready for you by 8 AM.

My insane plan was to drive the unproofed parts into San Francisco right before the rehearsal, photocopy them minutes before the downbeat and slip them onto the brass players’ stands. Hey—if Mozart could get away with it, why couldn’t I?

But the copyist fell asleep, and when I arrived to pick up his parts he met me with a sheepishly apologetic face.

So the first rehearsal of Harmonielehre was launched with those pounding E minor chords, and for a while it sounded pretty much like I thought it might—even better. The San Francisco Symphony bush wacked through a thicket of unfamiliar music, squinting at hand-copied parts, and by the end of two and a half hours they got to the final pounding Eb major stretto, a moment that has since become marginally famous due to Tilda Swinton’s over-the-top theatrical use of it in her new film “I Am Love.”

All engines were on overdrive, and it sounded to me like a sonic herd of elephants charging at top speed over hard, parched earth. But then the whole thing just suddenly came undone. We’d reached the moment when the brass parts had been left unfinished. An orchestra of a hundred players all of sudden gave the impression that someone had pulled the plug out of the socket. Only the conductor and I knew that it was because the parts were not yet finished. Everyone else just figured…”oh, so that’s how the piece ends. Weird but, oh well…it’s contemporary music.”

Fortunately the story has a better ending. By the following week we’d finished all the parts, most (but not all) of the wrong notes had been chased out, and Edo de Waart led the orchestra in an amazingly confident recording (still available on Nonesuch) that did much to establish the piece. A few years later Simon Rattle heard a tape of my performance of it with the Cleveland Orchestra and decided to make his own recording for EMI. And best of all, this week, some twenty-five years after that perilous first rehearsal, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, now full of many incredibly gifted new young players, some of whom were just learning their instruments in 1985, will make what is likely to be the definitive—and errata free—recording of the piece.

EMI Records’ genius art director came up with the all time ugliest record jacket for the Rattle recording.

Comments (13)

A.C. Douglas
December 7, 2010

"The charming old stories of Mozart scribbling out the overture to 'Marriage of Figaro' an hour before the premiere and dropping ink-wet parts onto the players’ stands may or may not be true...."

Don't mean to be nitpicking here, but the overture involved was that to _Don Giovanni_, not _Le Nozze_. And I've no doubt the story is true. After all, all M had to do was transcribe the thing, not compose it. That work had already been done.


The Weatherman
December 7, 2010

Great article, and outstanding album cover art. You should consider posting it to, although you may have to start a new category .... "Inexplicable".

December 7, 2010

I'm normally not one to gush, but...

The last movement reminds me of how I felt when I met she who would be the love of my life. So don't anyone get away with saying the contemporary music is abstract, long-hair stuff. People *connect* with the good stuff, and Harmonielehre is good stuff.

December 7, 2010

I became a huge fan of your music upon hearing Harmonielehre for the first time in college.

...I, too, was born in March of 1985.

Mixed Meters
December 7, 2010

Music Copyists! Who needs 'em? These days, in the age of computers, such jobs have rightfully gone the way of buggy whip makers and milkmen. With the push of one button, a full set of perfect orchestra parts spews forth from a laser printer faster than you can say "Esterbrook side-fill fountain pen with italic nib". Anyone can do it now. No training whatsoever is required.

December 7, 2010

@ Mixed Meters

I'm afraid you are horribly mistaken! In all but the simplest music you still have to straighten out all the weird things the computer does, especially with non-standard notation and aleatoricism. A good copyist approximates an engraved score/part as closely as possible and is also a second pair of editing eyes, invaluable for large complicated pieces. I cringe every time somebody says they extracted the parts for an orchestral piece in an hour - it usually (but admittedly not always) means the presentation is terrible and the piece has not been edited properly.

December 7, 2010

This may just be an experience that every composer has had...or will have.
A couple years ago, I was handing out a synthesizer part for a chamber orchestra piece as we were walking out on stage.
That was by far the scariest experience I've ever had in composition.
But the keyboardist missed only one note!

John Kelly
December 7, 2010

I learned the piece from the Rattle recording and have also enjoyed the downloadable St Louis concert conducted by the outstanding David Robertson (itunes, worth double the price, the SLSO tubas are unbelievable!).
Recently the NYPO under Gilbert gave a wonderful performance at Carnegie Hall.
I love this work, especially the glorious finale which opens with textures and tones reminiscent of the opening of Gurrelieder and reaches a thunderous conclusion which led the young Chinese exchange student (whose first orchestral concert this was) to spontaneously yell "fantastic!" while everyone else was beginning to applaud. Fantastic it surely is.

Anthony Kershaw
December 10, 2010

Love it, maestro. Have most of the recordings. Very much enjoy the safe Rattle and the crazy good live Robertson/St Louis.

Even enjoyed your Prom where you mention that the Beeb gang were a little overwhelmed by it. My first hearing. I remember listening passively then the horns come in like Bruckner hooligans and I perked up. Listened to the piece many times that summer. Been a fav since.

Thank you. And, all the best.

Anthony Kershaw

December 10, 2010

Though I disagree that the Rattle recording has the "all time ugliest record jacket," only because there are so many other worthy contenders for that Ugly Crown, it's definitely a contender.

Really enjoying your music at Davies Hall these last couple of weeks.

December 11, 2010

End of Harmonielehre beats the end of Tchaik 4, end of Shos 10, end of most things for spine-chilling euphoria. Apart from Mahler 8. Sorry John. :-)

Chris Oquist
December 13, 2010

It's fascinating to read about the efforts and races to finish one of my favorite pieces.

Somehow, it seems like I always keep coming back to Harmonielehre. It's a voyage: from stirring flights above swirling undercurrents to frozen, spinning bleakness, to churning industry and release.

It was quite an awesome surprise to hear it in Civ..



January 11, 2011

Fool! Ever since you linked to the I Am Love trailer, all I see in my mind is that trailer playing whenever I listen to Chairman! Something appropriately wonky about Communist China opera music juxtaposed to pasty white Tilda Swinton frolicking about Milan.

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