"I didn't realize I was sitting next to the composer!"

May 31, 2010

Given a choice I always would prefer to be onstage conducting a performance of a piece of mine rather than sitting out in the audience. This doesn’t mean that I am not gratefully appreciative when other conductors program something of mine. Not at all.

It’s just that I, like many composers, know that sitting in an audience while a piece of mine is being performed can be a seriously embarrassing experience. You’re out there in the hoi polloi and there is a better than fifty-fifty chance the person sitting next to you doesn’t have a clue he’s sitting NEXT TO THE COMPOSER!

This is usually what happens: You arrive at the hall about an hour before the show. Frequently there will be a pre-concert talk, during which you’ll answer questions from the stage before a hundred or so listeners. I love these folks. They are the ones who have made a genuine effort to arrive an hour early in order to learn something about what they are about to hear at the concert. They will end up being roughly ten or fifteen percent of the listeners, and they will likely be the only ones to recognize you once the performance begins.

When it’s time for the concert, you find your place in row W and quietly slide into it. The guy in the business suit in the neighboring seat nods perfunctorily to you. He doesn’t know you from Adam. (Certainly not from Adams.) All he knows is that he paid ninety bucks for tickets for himself and the wife, and before he gets to hear something he can hum he’s got to sit through some “contemporary music.” Whose idea was it to put this thing on the concert, anyway?” Little does he know that the perpetrator is right next to him.

The lights dim, and the conductor comes out onstage. You notice that he’s wearing “tails” that look like they were borrowed from the wine steward at the local Italian restaurant (probably called “Prego” or “Intermezzo”). Maestro gives the downbeat and YOUR PIECE is launched. It sounds strange, even to you. Why is it that the Beethoven (or the Mozart or the Mahler), no matter how bad a performance it may be, or how dreadful might be the acoustics of the hall, will always sound pretty much the way you remember it, whereas YOUR OWN PIECE sounds like a gob of undifferentiated atonal slurry? You start mumbling to yourself, “calm down, it’s OK, you’re just overreacting.”

Then your neighbor, the guy in the business suit, starts to get restless. This is a bad sign, as we’re only in the third minute of your piece. He leans over and mutters something to his wife. She nods her head in an expression of dour assent and continues studying the lingerie ad in the program book. The man adjusts his position in his seat. Then he finds not one, but six places on his body to scratch—all rated PG, fortunately.

Some of my pieces are in a single large, uninterrupted movement. But if the orchestra is playing a longish one with pauses between movements that’s—ahah!—time for a “BlackBerry Break,” the pause that refreshes.

This is an increasingly common event in concerts of classical music, and it doesn’t have to be just for tedious, contemporary pieces like mine. Recently I attended a stirring, thoughtful performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. When the first movement came to its abrupt, fateful final D minor cadence, the two people to my left and right both “lit up,” checking their emails and making a quick Facebook flyby. Beethoven’s message to humanity was stirring and ennobling, but the lure of their inbox was infinitely greater.

I’m lucky enough to receive generally good performances—in some cases really wonderful ones. But it isn’t always the case. Now and then a jetlagged, distracted conductor will give a downbeat that resembles the starting pistol at a dog race. The orchestra then scrambles to stay together, wrong notes and false entrances go ripping through the air like debris caught in the whirl of a tornado, and I, the composer (the man sitting next to the guy in the business suit) am overcome with a case of inarticulate, inchoate panique. Every composer knows this desperate, sinking feeling. You have all you can do not to bolt out of your seat, run up onto the stage, grab the conductor by his suspenders, look for his “OFF” button, and signal to the audience in frantic semaphore gestures “No no no no no, folks, that’s NOT the way it goes. Please—I didn’t write that.”

But that’s a fantasy. What really happens is that you just tough it out, knowing that when you walk up onstage for a bow, you’ll wade through a sea of if-looks-could-kill expressions from the hapless orchestra players.

So—-the piece is over. During the dribble of applause you discreetly leave your seat, dart around the back of the audience and come up onstage to take a bow. Perhaps the conductor will make that gesture so dear to the profession—a stagey shading his or her eyebrows from the bright lights and a grand peering out into the audience with a questioning look. That is the cue that says to the assembled multitude, “the COMPOSER is not only alive (or was when we started this piece) but is here and is going to come up onstage and take a bow!”

People in the U.S. are generally much too polite or intimidated to really express their reactions. Once in a while a boo will get mixed in with the patter of applause. That can add a certain spice to the moment. You’ll see some amused expressions from the orchestra members when that happens. (No one is ever going to boo after the Mahler, that’s for sure.) But generally everything is carried out in correct decorum. If the brother-in-law of your second cousin is in the second balcony you might see him, a solitary figure far off in the distance, giving you a “standing O” and cheering while the people seated around him look on with quietly perplexed expressions.

You return to your seat. The guy in the business suit and his wife have by now realized that they were sitting next to THE COMPOSER. As you sheepishly sink into your place they stand up and applaud you. He offers you his hand and exclaims:

“Terrific! Do you hear all that stuff in your head?”

Comments (31)

Doug Palmer
May 31, 2010

Instead of backhanding new music by occasionally programing a new piece
first to get it out of the way of the main feature, orchestras ought to program a new (21st century) piece with each concert as an encore.
The folks who come for the pre-concert will stay for the new stuff.
Furthermore, instead of spending hours of rehearsal time on yet another Beethoven 5 and 20 minutes on something unfamiliar, it ought to be more the other way around.
Classical orchestras are digging their own grave.
And even furthermore, I am more than certain that I am not the only 21st century composer who appreciates melody.

May 31, 2010

Great post, I was just at the Concertgebouw for a concert of Gubaidulina's first Violin Concerto and saw all the things you mentioned.. If not enough time for a Blackberry Break between the short pauses, the majority of the folks thought the performance would be a good time to read all the composer names on the walls.. I can imagine how it must feel to see all of this as the composer.. Needless to say, everyone perked up for the Strauss piece afterwards..

May 31, 2010

Great post, I was just at the Concertgebouw for a concert of Gubaidulina's first Violin Concerto and saw all the things you mentioned.. If not enough time for a Blackberry Break between the short pauses, the majority of the folks thought the performance would be a good time to read all the composer names on the walls.. I can imagine how it must feel to see all of this as the composer.. Needless to say, everyone perked up for the Strauss piece afterwards..

Dr Webern
May 31, 2010

you are the larry david of contemporary music

May 31, 2010

Would the retrograde of Dr Webern's comment (and Dr W loves his retrogrades) entail that Larry David is the John Adams of contemporary comedy?

Tom Godell
May 31, 2010

Years ago, I attended a concert of the Seattle Symphony at which several new works by Asian composers were premiered. Each one was worse than the last. Apparently each of them thought that they were the first to discover how dissonant minor seconds are. So they repeated them, endlessly. At the end of one particularly awful piece, I started to boo, but my seatmate (who lives in Seattle and might want to attend future concerts there) stopped me just in the nick of time. I did write to the local critic the day after her article mindlessly praising that nonsense appeared in the paper, however.

For the record, I attended your National Symphony concert on May 21. There was far more than a "dribble of applause" for your two pieces--from an audience that was clearly 70+ (other than me and my date). But then perhaps that's because YOU were the conductor.

Ken Wilson
June 1, 2010

<i>For the record, I attended your National Symphony concert on May 21. There was far more than a "dribble of applause" for your two pieces--from an audience that was clearly 70+ (other than me and my date).</i>

I attended the evening of the 22nd, and at least one person expressed his approval by shouting. I thought that was in poor taste, but then I'm an old fuddy-duddy. Better that than the Blackberry checking though.

June 1, 2010

Speaking of Blackberries - There was once a conductor who after somebody's phone went off managed to steal it during the interval. He then drowned it onstage in a glass of water when the second half began, public hanging style, and left the corpse next to the podium while he conducted the rest of the programme...

June 1, 2010

What a harrowing tale you tell! How awful it must be for you to travel the world and have your music performed by world-class artists only to have to sit among the "hoi polloi." Now that science has discovered a method to make cells self-replicate, perhaps in the near future you can clone yourself. That way, you can replace the dowdy, goofy conductors, the shamefully clumsy performers, and, worst of all, the ignorant audience members who can't even show up an hour early to listen to you speak about your art ('cause nothin's better than listening to someone talk about music). You can fill every role in the concert hall and not have to endure any awkward interaction with pesky musicians and blackberry-checkers!
Better yet, have a rider inserted in your residency contract that demands a private booth with direct conveyance to the stage (perhaps a zipline? or a cherry picker?). That way you can avoid any contact with "the many" that paid their ninety bucks and simply arrive in front of them to receive their praise.
John, you are truly one of the world's great musical minds, but that doesn't make you better than your audience. While you protest your "grateful appreciation," it sure doesn't sound like you're grateful or appreciative. Get over yourself.

June 1, 2010

I've attended many concerts at which composers have made appearances. I usually want to meet them, at least if I like their music, but it's not always easy. And I'm usually torn--do they want to be left the hell alone, or do they like the trickle of people approaching them before the concert begins? Do they hate the insipid comments of well wishers and autograph seekers? Sometimes I imagine that the insipid comments might be preferable to the inane conversation they are required to engage in with the hosts seated beside them--often the chairman of the music department or some such local organizer. I've met Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Louis Andriessen, George Crumb, and yes, JA too--all at the Eastman School. (Those sorts of affairs are much better than large orchestra appearances.) All of the composers have seemed very glad to meet anyone. So I appreciate the graciousness, even if you'd prefer to be left alone. (Somewhere in my CD collection is a copy of Century Rolls signed by the composer, and I thank JA for it. It seems silly, I suppose, but I'm glad to have it and to have met you.)

Will Mego
June 1, 2010

ECM, I read the piece another way, a statement expressing a composer's common and seemingly inescapable fears relating to public performance. Rather than trash anybody it seemed he wanted to make the man in the suit happy with the music, but finds the entire process uncomfortable, frustrating, and somewhat embarrassing. Admittedly, speaking as a completely unknown and unperformed composer these are problems I'd love to have. However, I will be filing away the zipline idea... Now THAT'S an entrance.

June 2, 2010

I certainly appreciated reading this perspective. I once sat across the isle from JA during a premiere that I thought was pretty middling. I certainly did wonder what was going through his mind, but was certainly too intimidated to approach the composer afterward to exchange reactions with him. Maybe next time I'll be brave enough.

I had a similar experience a couple years ago sitting next to Phillip Glass at a smallish performance of his work. He looked kind of bored. :-)

Richard Friedman
June 3, 2010

I once sat directly behind Lou Harrison at a concert that included his music. All thru the concert all I could see were Lou's ears, and the hairs on the back of his neck.

He had beautiful ears. I meant to tell him that, but never had the chance.

Lynn B.
June 3, 2010

I would probably have wound up sitting in JA's lap, that delighted to be hearing the music live that I'm listening to over my headphones right now. Sigh.

Mary Ann Stewart
June 4, 2010

Enjoyed your blog, refreshing sense of humor, and perspective on how you (and so many composers before you) feel on hearing your own work performed. Despite the hoi polloi comment, I think you were seeing the situation with self-deprecating humor at your relative obscurity in the eyes of the blackberry-addicted patron next to you and not belittling your audience. And with a name like yours, "not knowing you from Adam" is an irresistible pun. This experience reminds me of that very human urge to invisibly attend your own funeral, & enjoy watching everyone's reactions.
Look forward to more blogs!

Chip Michael
June 4, 2010

I'm sorry I missed the performance of your piece by the Colorado Symphony. I was suppose to attend (and review) the concert but family obligations kept me from making it.

I very much resonate with your impression as a composer/spectator. While my pieces are still being performed at the University (student) level, there is always this sense of trepidation as to how well it will be performed and whether the audience will get a true image of "what's in my head." Obviously some performances are better than others and yet, politically it is "necessary" to smile and congratulate the performers, accept the accolades from the audience (whether you think they mean it or not) and return to your seat cringing at what just happened.

So.... what does it take to get the opportunity to study with you as a composer???

June 5, 2010

Really good music is satisfying to play. Anyone who has won an orchestra job has devoted lots of time to learning to play an instrument with great facility, but most composers don't develop enough proficiency as instrumentalists to come up with anything that's actually idiomatic or fun to perform. Any music degree should include a both a performance component and serious composition study that includes performing one's own work! Every orchestra concert series should include a performers' choice occasionally! Audiences and players would probably show more enthusiasm for music that involves more than terrified counting and dogged reproduction of explosively fast chromatic jibberish. Composers often have impractical and unrealistic ideas about what can be successfully achieved, tempo-wise, never having actually practiced or performed anything. (See the Stravinsky-conducted Pulcinella recordngs, sloppy and chaotic).

Laurent Vuillard
June 7, 2010

Non ! Non ! Non ! This does not happen like this in Paris in the heart of civilisation and bon gout.

The full audience did pretend to enjoy Boulez's Fifth sonata (I think was fifth for some reason it's number did not stick as well in my memory than another fifth...). Despite 35 min of mercyless piano pounding, the public acclaim is almost what it was for the Beethoven sonatas of the first half. One must look "au fait" and swimming against the tide is not exactly parisian. In fact programming Boulez in part 2 is excellent. (No, not because you may run away, this is not so simple) but the public will want a bis and thus will feel motivated to cheer the player. We got the Debussy.
PS Your description of the conductor looking for the composer , so funny!

George Mattingly
June 7, 2010

You forgot to mention the guy in the next row texting "WTF! . . ." 30 seconds into the performance, while the guy behind him who leaned his head back and made loud gurgling noises like the Marine dying on the beach in THE PACIFIC.

Steven L. Rosenhaus
June 10, 2010

A couple of brief, related anecdotes:

1) 1970s: I was a "budding" composer, an undergrad at Queens College. A piece of mine was being performed, and in the audience were my girl friend (my wife now) and her mother. Future mom-in-law turned to my girl friend at one point and asked "He hears that music in his head?" My girl friend, being proud of me, said yes. "That poor man," f-m-i-l said.

2) 1981: My first =public= performance of my music. A teenaged audience member came up to me the concert (having seen me take a bow) and said "I never met a living composer before." I chose to "bite my tongue" rather than ask "And how many dead composers have you met?" I was glad she was interested enough to want to listen in the first place.

3) 2002: Dresden Days of Contemporary Music festival. My Violin Concerto was receiving its premiere, on a concert of only works for solo violin(s) and orchestra. Arvo Pärt was there, as he had a piece on the program (after my own, which was first). At the dress rehearsal my soloist came out with his violin and bow, but there was no music stand. Pärt turned to me, grabbed my arm (hard!) and asked: "How did you get him to memorize the music? =Nobody= does modern music from memory!" Needless to say, I was taken aback on several levels.

Matthew Fields
June 10, 2010

...Yes, that's pretty much exactly what happens, almost every time.

James Sproul
June 10, 2010

That is a fantastic story. It happens so often it has almost become amusing... almost. I even love when the "guy in the business suit" leans over to me and mutters something to the effect of "what is this filth". I just laugh.. and watch as the embarrassment climbs his quickly reddening face when I have to get up.

Lawrence Mumford
June 10, 2010

Excellent description of the inner life of a composer when his music is played. But as to the "business suit guy," he might be a brain surgeon or a senator. I respect him, and I'd like to see the NO TUNES ALLOWED sign taken down in serious music circles.

Matthew Saunders
June 10, 2010

As a composer, I always feel like the performance will go as the performance goes. The piece isn't really finished until some performers have figured out how to make it work. My biggest neurosis is that all the well-wishers are just being nice when they say, "I just *loved* your piece," and I worry that even the musicians who commission me are in this group. The real compliments are the people who commission a piece, play it, then decide to play it again. The ultimate compliment is the performer who commissions a *second* piece. That's sincere admiration.

June 10, 2010

I booed quite heartily after a performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. I love that piece, but the performance was so horrid that I could not restrain myself.

For unfamiliar music, it is much harder for audiences to distinguish a bad performance from the piece. More rehearsal time and repeated performances would help.

June 14, 2010

Great post. I think that musicians are very self-critical, and that's why we have this feeling of embarrassment during performances. When we see the business suit guy checking his blackberry,we wonder "is he bored? doesn't he like the performance?" . Then we analyse everything going wrong with the performance...every detail!!
I think it's because musicians tend to be perfectionists, we perform, we cringe at the smallest mistakes , and then we analyse every aspect of the audience's reaction!

June 14, 2010

A blatantly true post :D Yet I'm sure many composers could definitely relate to that kind of generic scenario with the bored,pretentious Blackberry businessman.
I suppose it is almost impossible to please everyone especially taking in account the more untrained ears of the audience who may find some works less accessible than others.
Such is the fickle nature of certain human attention spans it is kind of an ongoing goal for composers to try and create that ultimate, engrossing atmosphere with their piece and maintaining it from start to end, hopefully leaving no mental space for any Blackberry breaks.
However, such is life and the audience will always comprise of a smattering of bored, inattentive people.
As previously mentioned it may be more applicable if the introduction of a new work be followed or preceded by a "performers choice" work, or something which is quite easily accessible for the general audience in order to create in retrospect a more open-minded, accepting mood.

Brett Stewart
June 15, 2010

I sat behind John Corigliano at the premier of his Third Symphony (for wind band) in Austin. Luckily I knew his face before the concert. Although I was tempted to mutter something after the intermission just to see if he'd notice, I was too startled by the piece to try anything that dumb.

John Emr
July 19, 2010

No one conducts your music like you. You're a rock star, a great composer, and an excellent conductor.

November 4, 2011

I aways wondered what it would be like to hear or see something you made infront of you being show off.

Cambron J. Little
September 23, 2012

Depending on how engaging the performance is should deter the audience from releasing their attention from the stage.
I have found in my personal experiences of concert attendance that the more wrenching a piece is a fewer number of the "speed texters" come out and play.

I have never heard a John Adams pieces performed live... though when my time comes and I am thrown into the live wormhole Adams creates in all of his pieces, I am sure I will not see any cell phone glows.

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