On surviving a first rehearsal

Oct 20, 2009

You go into a nervous sweat to finish the full score and meet the deadline, feeling resentment at those famous architects and painters who have entire armies of assistants to whom they can hand over the tedium of small decisions. The composer always seems to work alone. Has to. Can’t trust anyone with any aspect of the piece. (Or maybe it IS possible? I’d never seriously thought of that. “Guido, my boy, here is an eight note pattern for the opening movement. Flesh it out and make it last for eighty-six bars until that first tutti. You know the chord changes I like. I’ll give you something for the brass tomorrow.”)

As the D-Day approaches and you have to deliver the score and parts to the orchestra you feel yourself overwhelmed with the burden of a millions fussy little decisions. Exactly on what beat does that diminuendo end. And is it mezzo forte or mezzo piano? (Or maybe pianissimo, because they’ll play it loud in any event?) Why aren’t there more gradients available? (Stockhausen tried: zero to ten.) Is pianissimo in the brass still going to cover the clarinets? And you always forget about mutes. It says “mutes on”, but you’ve declined to say when to remove them. Is it true that Schoenberg thought “mezzo” forte and “mezzo” piano were for sissies who couldn’t make up their minds? Maybe he was right.

These decisions are of the devil-in-the-details sort, but they can’t be put off or approximated. A confusion or uncertainty in any single part can cause a full orchestra of a hundred players to suddenly grind to a halt while the second oboist queries the conductor about why there are only three quarters in her 4/4 bar.

Nine months of this piece with only yourself to mumble to, working in more or less total solitude, and then suddenly it’s a public event, a birthing with cameras rolling and critical ears pricked to the ready. Toward the end you spend so much time in the studio you imagine the furniture in the room gossiping about you. You can’t even manage to bring the cups and dishes littering your worktable downstairs from the studio and return them to the kitchen. They begin nurturing exotic molds, not quite as bacteria-friendly as Beethoven’s unemptied chamber pots, but nonetheless enthusiastically fructifying.

I still use a pencil (Turquoise 5B) and heavy 24-staff Judy Green manuscript paper for the final draft. Old fart. Creature of habit. Last of a dying breed. Hardly anyone actually writes things on paper with a pencil anymore. Everyone else lives in the virtual world where Sibelius doesn’t mean Swan of Tuonela but rather the most updated notation software. Messy business, though. The electric eraser, a relic of old-school drafting studios, leaves an annoying layer of rubber dust all over, gumming up the keyboard and requiring a dedicated hand-held vacuum cleaner to clean up. I think about John Cage’s story in Silence of how Schoenberg pointed to the eraser on his pencil and said, “this is the important end.”

City Noir is so densely layered that I need two full manuscript pages to embrace all the parts. Hell for the copyist, who is nonetheless unfazed, a total pro. David—started out playing clarinet with Frank Zappa. After 24 years knows my intentions nearly well enough to fill out a line that I’ve forgotten to write out.

It’s largely unthinkable to “workshop” a big orchestral piece. The expenses are too enormous. So the world premiere tends to be the “workshop.” Not a great way to go about things, but pretty much the way it’s been for decades if not several centuries. The most onerous challenge is surviving the first rehearsal without plunging into abject, self-pitying despair. Instead one has to answer to the imperative of managing the remaining rehearsals so that the music, for all its warts and blemishes, is nonetheless presented in the best light possible. Is the story true that Mahler returned from a disastrous first outing with the Fifth Symphony, wondering how he could have so wildly miscalculated his orchestration? Or is that just a compensation fantasy on my part?

Herewith a composer’s survival kit for the first rehearsal of an orchestra piece:

  • Try not to panic if you can’t recognize that noise coming from the stage as something you wrote. The players, even those who’ve seriously practiced their parts, are nonetheless holding on for dear life. From their vantage point inside the churning machine they very likely have no idea at all what you mean nor how what they are playing is supposed to fit into the grand plan. They have only their individual parts, which are strange and incomplete road maps full of rests, occasional notes and then more rests. Even the very best of them will miscount on a first encounter.
  • At the first reading the wrong notes you are hearing are probably 90% due to musicians’ errors. This will rectify itself more or less by the time of the performance. (We are assuming you did a thorough, responsible and accurate job of proof reading. If you didn’t, go back to your composition teacher and demand a refund.) But some wrong notes, no matter how hard you worked to check everything, will pop up. Orchestra players are usually very generous and caring about getting wrong notes corrected. They’ll frequently take time out of their break to come up to you to check something. (On the night of the Disney Hall gala premiere, only a minute or two before the concert is to begin, I see Dale Hikawa, one of the first stand viola players, jump off the edge of the stage and come running up to me in the audience. “You know that B-double sharp? Dah-dah-dee-dee DAH? (She hums it.) That couldn’t be right, could it? Are you sure?” Indeed, she is right to ask. I say “B double-sharp doesn’t make any sense. It’s gotta be a mistake.” She smiles, relieved, and runs back up onto the stage in her black evening gown.)
  • At least at the first rehearsal, try not to interrupt the conductor while he or she is making a first pass through the music. Conductors are a varied and unpredictable lot (and when I am conducting I am varied and unpredictable). Some are thrilled to be introducing a new work and can take enjoyment in the give-and-take of a chaotic and messy new experience. But they still need to take charge over what is always just a stone’s throw away from degenerating into a free-for-all. A first rehearsal of a new piece can be a thoroughly harrowing experience for even the most confident conductors. Under these circumstances a nervous, beseeching composer can be a decidedly unwelcome presence in the area around the podium. Stay cool and wait for them to come to you with questions.
  • Keep notes of the major things that have to be addressed, but don’t try to lay all that desiderata on the assembled multitude during the first session. I no longer use a note pad, but rather carry a block of small Post-its which I can quickly stick right on the very spot of the score page where something has to be fixed. Librarians, invariably the kindest and most knowledgeable people in the music profession, are almost always willing and able to put changes in the parts in between rehearsals. If the orchestra has the luxury of an assistant conductor, employ him or her to communicate things to various members of the orchestra. But never make a substantial change in a part without making sure that the conductor knows about this and has it in his or her score.
  • Remember that balances actually change from one concert hall to another. How many times have I scratched out a tuba part or deleted a percussion line only to realize later that the peculiarities of that particular hall are site specific and not carried over to the next one? Nonetheless, you have to make things right for the immediate setting. Disney Hall in Los Angeles, a delightful place to make and listen to music, is nonetheless a very tricky acoustical space. It can be like playing on the head of a tautly stretched timpani. The back wall of the stage propels the last row of instruments—usually drums, chimes and other heavy artillery—over the heads of the woodwinds and strings and over the head even of the conductor. A forte written for the bass drum can annihilate an entire section of 16 violins. The bass drum player doesn’t know how this sound is affecting the total acoustical image, and even the conductor may not be aware. In City Noir the tam tams (which I love, especially when played softly) are total danger zones, ready to erupt like Vesuvius and pour their hot sonic lava over half the stage.
  • If you’re lucky enough to get numerous rehearsals, plan in advance what the most important issues to be addressed are, and meet with the conductor with a modest list of realizable goals just before the rehearsal. A really great orchestra has a fast learning curve, and a talented conductor know how to ride it. After a passage has been played a number of times, the musicians will begin to intuit how their parts fit into the whole. Sometimes only a second pass is needed for a passage to suddenly transform from inchoate sludge to sparkling clarity. Other things are never going to right themselves without slow and painstaking rehearsal. A gifted conductor will know what needs work and what will take care of itself automatically.
  • Be flexible and take every opportunity to talk to the players. Sometimes you can make an on-the-spot change that will make an instrumentalist’s day. Other times, although you realize that what you’ve written is in fact awkward and unreasonable, the player will be affronted if you offer to simplify or revise a phrase or a passage. They assume that if something isn’t working it’s their fault. Composers are geniuses, right? For them it’s their burden to somehow make it work, and they do not realize that it’s the composer who needs to get it right.

With that said, I have to confess that I am exceptionally fortunate this time. Gustavo, for all the blaze of media spotlight and for all the burden of expectations heaped on him, rehearses the piece expertly and with good humor. The first reading, a full week before the premiere, is a jolt for everyone. He launches the piece at full throttle and doesn’t stop until the very last bar some thirty-five minutes later, taking no prisoners. Sometimes the tempi are even faster than the already perverse one’s I’ve stipulated. But there’s a method to his madness. No one will be deluded into thinking that the piece is any less fiendish than it is. Of course it’s a roller coaster of a ride, like hurtling down a steep hill knowing your brakes have failed. They say the man jumping off the skyscraper ledge sees his whole life pass before him in a flash. Well, it’s not unlike that. Everything you have labored over with infinite care, step by step, note by note, during the past nine months now goes careening by in a burst of only barely controlled chaos. It’s like a freight train threatening to jump its tracks, or like that absurd Hollywood movie from a few years back featuring a driverless semi that had a murderous mind of its own.

The first bash-through reading completed, it’s time to go back and pick up the road kill. (Twenty four years ago, at the first reading of Harmonielere, I still hadn’t completed the last ten bars, so when the orchestra reached that point, a massive fortissimo charging tutti, the sound suddenly and alarmingly stopped dead in its tracks, as if someone had suddenly pulled the plug out of a giant socket.) Everyone takes a deep breath and starts again, this time at half the tempo, first the strings, then the winds, then the brass—slowly, deliberately. A tedious slog, but necessary. Emanuel Ax taught me the value of doing everything VERY slowly. Zen “beginner’s mind.” The players are thankful not to be stressed. Their internal computers take in the data as they plod along. Amazing things begin to happen. The waters part. Continents slowly become discernible, rising out of the chaos, taking shape. Your music finally begins to resemble your imagined version.

Comments (27)

October 21, 2009

Bravo. Welcome to the world of blogging. Happy to be amongst (?) the first readers/contributors. I hope the stream posts remains frequent, voluminous, and varied.
This type of connection with your public can be very helpful. I'm sure the ratio of people giving you praise will greatly outnumber those who will give negative reviews of your pieces new and old.

I'll be interested to hear your evaluation of the forthcoming Nixon recording. And release plans for the string quartet and City Noir.

clark suprynowicz
October 21, 2009

Alexis Alrich led me to this post, John. Very funny. And so, so true. The funny thing is how ever many times I tell myself to sit still & quiet at a first reading, my legs seem to lead me the podium as if I were a somnambulist, and my mouth seems to want to point out the obvious: It is all wrong! What is needed is a gag. And chains.

David Robertson
October 21, 2009

This is great stuff! It's nice how your fluency in music is reflected in ease with language. Judy Green is the manuscript paper I grew up with. Hang in there with the old fashioned habits. If more pencil pushers could move them around like you do this would be a wonderful world indeed.

P.S. Berio always used to check for "mutes out" as the last thing he did before letting the score leave his hands...

Dmitri Gaskin
October 22, 2009

Wow, I wish you had written about this earlier - thanks! I've definitely done some of the things you say not to do - thanks for the advice!

Hunter Brown
October 22, 2009

An amazing post. Thanks for letting us in on your process, as well as sharing your anxieties. Now I'm hooked for future posts!

The more and more I get to know your output (now, even considering your blog posts as well as your music) the more and more interested and happy I become.

The best part of tonight's show (PBS), for me, was your introduction to your piece. Composers are my heroes. I like to fake like one on the weekends, sans lycra costume, but the point it speaking on your piece is always fascinating for me.

Again, thanks for letting us in and sharing some of the back story.

October 23, 2009

I'm so excited you're blogging! Now, where's the RSS feed?

thom leshinsky
October 23, 2009

Just saw the LA premier of City Noir on PBS the other night . And now an inside look at the process of rehearsal . Hope Nonesuch records this piece so it can be enjoyed on my stereo .
And the book has been pure inspiration to a struggling composer .
Now with your blog I'll be coming back here more often

October 24, 2009

Great to see your blog! I just found out that you just had this piece premiered. That's great. I hope to be able to purchase the recording some time soon.

October 24, 2009

Great post!

Old Fart? I don't think so. I'm 22 years old and find it completely impossible to compose at the computer. There's nothing worse than that horrible feeling of having spent 15 hours straight editing parts in front of a screen. I wouldn't want to inflict that on myself while actually writing music!

Manuel Reidel
October 25, 2009

Amazing. Te chance to be so close to a composer day to day is something unexpected. I'm just a listener,but such a composer does not have any listener. When I enjoy your music I feel a pleasure and a relief -that a did not have to compose it by myself.
This is my giving back to you, small but really felt.Thanks.

Geoffrey Gibbs
October 25, 2009

Watched the public broadcast of "City Noir." It is always interesting to find that a composer has undergone changes from one decade to another——all for the good I would say! What is particularly wonderful about "City Noir" is the lightness of the scoring even with such a huge battery of instruments. The long complex melodic lines in counterpoint with each other are delightful and they are all entirely clear to the ear. Congratulations!

Stan Gayuski
October 26, 2009

John I still can't find the way back down to my seat in Davies Hall on the premier of Harmonielhere oh so many years ago.
Still among the most exciting concerts I've ever attended.

thom leshinsky
October 26, 2009

On the subject of not being able to compose on the computer .
Let me recommend , if you haven't read it already the book , " Silicon Snake Oil "
There are just some of us ( me included ) no matter what age that will never be able to express their creativity on a keyboard .
For myself , at 53 . Give me a quality fountain pen , some decent manuscript paper and a quite room and leave me be .

Paul Muller
October 28, 2009

Saw the PBS broadcast of 'City Noir' and I think the LA Phil really came through. Your description of the rehearsal process shows just how close a thing it can be. Making music is like making hot dogs - everyone likes the final product but you don't really want to know how it was made...

Keith Kothman
October 29, 2009

Wonderful advice! I tell my students the same thing whenever they have an ensemble piece go into rehearsal. Before I learned this I would get absolutely shattered at first rehearsals. Now I can be a bit more "Zen" about it, and wait for the performers to gain that understanding.

The blog is great. Something I'm passing on to all my students.

Patrick in VA
October 29, 2009

Thanks so much for the blog, looking forward to your time with the NSO in the spring.
I absolutely loved City Noir, the best new piece I've heard in years. You took the sound of the Noir soundtracks and constructed a beautiful edifice.
And, of course, much gratitude to Gustavo for programming it.

Becky Lipsitz
November 1, 2009

It's comforting (although a bit discomforting) to know that we all share this experience, no matter how acclimated we are to the composition world. The gossiping furniture resonated oddly with me, as did (especially) your frustration over what could come across as minutia, such as dynamics and minor errata. Thanks for writing this!

Laura Schwendinger
November 1, 2009

Dear John,

I'm living through this once again with my new work for flute and orchestra, here at UW Madison, where I teach (and Becky in the above post is my student). At least with our University orchestra, one has a fair chance of making tweaks here and there without raising people's suspicions of our ears. The idea that we are responsible for so much, even when we are lucky enough to have a good copyist, is scary, no matter who we are writing for. Unless they do what we do, no one can understand the hours we spend with the blurry vision near the end, the excitement and dread we feel at the birth of every "baby". Orchestra is always a thrill to write for though, a scary one, at times, but exciting.

Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Alexander Prior
November 8, 2009

Some great advise and very entertaining along the way! I recognize many of these situations, and you put it just right how to handle it all. Thank you for all these delightful blogs!
I would love to hear where you think music will go in the next 50-100 years!
God bless!

Charles Lovekin
November 20, 2009

Well, I hate to be the turd in the punch-bowl, but if it weren't for the $99 software from Finale I would never have returned to my inner desire to compose and begun again. Oh well. There has to be room for me somewhere.

December 4, 2009

The late conductor Erich Leinsdorf used to say that "mP" and "mF" actually mean "mediocre piano" and "mediocre forte".

L. M. Birde
August 14, 2010

It's ALWAYS such a pleasure to find a musician who is both talented and articulate! Thanks to a Cabrillo fan flagging this up for us.

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August 31, 2010

How bad do you think it is for the composer to make a major change to the piece AFTER the first rehearsal? I'm sure that will only come across as the composer has major doubts about the piece, right? For example, let’s say the composer cuts out 30 bars from the development section or adds an additional 30 bars to smooth a transition from one section to the next. Or is this much more common than one would think?

Niko Umar - Durr
September 18, 2010

Wow! This is great advice! Thank you for providing composers young and old alike with information such as this!

October 22, 2010

Nice post. I know the experience you're talking about, albeit on a smaller scale (it's no less fraught for that!).

Interesting that the conductor took your piece up to tempo (or faster) the first time, and then half-time the second. I do that kind of thing with my students (piano or ensemble) all the time: give them something too-hard to do first, then turn to something easier. Irrational as it seems, the easier thing is easier to do after trying something hard than it would have been if you had started with it!

Nothing old-fartish about using pencil and paper. I use a notation program, but at least half the time, that is preceded by sketching something on paper. Whatever works!

Stephen P Brown
June 27, 2011

Very interesting reading. I'm more of a conductor who composes rather than a [one of the very rare] composers who can conduct, such as yourself, Bernstein and Mahler. And it shows: I continue to focus on my more successful conducting career www.stephenpbrown.com

This insight into what must go through a composer's mind during the premiere process is always a concern for a conductor, and it is reassuring to know that the reality is the same for young and old, experienced and new. Every new piece requires its own approach, but I do wish there was often more time available for score study beforehand. Is that just a dream?

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