Sunday, January 27, 2008

Warning: music content!

This weekend, I had an opportunity that increasingly fewer people get over time - to have an original composition of mine performed by a full symphonic orchestra. The more instrumentalists any given piece calls for, the harder it is to pull the necessary people together for a performance, and many orchestras know their programs at least a season in advance and have little interest in unsolicited scores by trying-to-make-it composers. This is why I feel extremely fortunate that the conductor of the university orchestra in which I play viola asked me if I'd written any pieces that the group could play.

I had exactly one piece. Every single one of my other pieces is chamber music - far more practical in terms of getting things performed. The only reason I'd written an orchestral piece at all was that the conductor of the non-music-major orchestra where I went to undergrad said, "If you write us a piece, we'll play it." I wrote the piece in the course of about ten days in 2005, and to cut a long story short, the orchestra for which it was written didn't play it after all. I was devastated at the time, and set the thing aside as a lost cause, but I was glad to dig it back out for another chance at a performance.

The rehearsal process was quite stressful, between bad intonation and gaps in the woodwind and brass sections that weren't filled until the week of the concert. But for all the things that went wrong in rehearsal and could have continued to go wrong, I ended up with two very solid and energetic performances, and a very positive response from both the audience and the orchestra.

I was pleased with how it went and glad that I had the opportunity, but at the same time, I never got particularly excited about the performances. I felt surprisingly indifferent about it for much of the rehearsal cycle, and barely told anyone that it was happening. I think this was in part due to the fact that I can write (and have written) better pieces than that one, and that it's not really the most representative piece for my whole body of work. But I also know that a lot of this detachment comes from my knowing I'm not continuing in that field after this year. My questioning the institution of Western Art Music and the role of the Academic Composer has been a long process, but the real paradigm shift (and the realization that I really didn't enjoy being in that field, and decision that I actually wanted to switch to formally studying earth science rather than casually observing) happened this past summer. This was the first performance of one of my compositions since then. If anything, the stress of the rehearsals only emphasized my feelings of not wanting to do this anymore.

I think I did a good enough job of acting the part of the capital-C Composer for the weekend, though. With all sorts of orchestra members, friends, and audience people I've never seen before in my life coming up to me and saying things like, "You must feel so proud," or, "I loved your piece," or, "Let me know when something else of yours is going to be played," I couldn't exactly tell them, "Actually, I have decided I don't want to be a professional musician and would much rather compose for fun, without pressure, deadlines, or institutional expectations," or with, "I spent about two thirds of the time I was playing the piece thinking about what would happen if the San Andreas Fault ruptured during the show." I just thanked them graciously and smilingly. And I really was glad that so many people liked it, and that the performance went so well. It was by no means a hateful experience, just an uncomfortable one.

Particularly uncomfortable were the questions of, "What are you going to do after you get your Master's this June?" I was able to dodge the real answer to this one by saying that I might be going to Java this summer; I didn't want to say I'm switching academic paths in favor of seismology, most prominently because I still haven't received that official letter yet, and there are people in the music department that I'm not planning on telling until I have that letter in my hand. Not to mention it might not be the most appropriate revelation to make right after such a musical success. I tried to explain how I was feeling to one of the bass players in the orchestra (who happens to be a physicist), and he kept telling me how I should stick to it through periods of disenchantment and find a thing in the study of music to latch onto and make it fun again, because he thinks I am a Natural Musician and a Good Composer and he likes playing my stuff. All very kind words of genuine encouragement, and then I would have felt like I was shooting him down to say, "I really don't want to find something to latch back onto in this field, and I'm planning on studying seismology instead, because it interests and excites me far more as an academic field and career path." And I also felt that if I'd said that, people would have tried to convince me not to - attempting to discourage me from a decision about which I really feel good because they liked a piece I wrote several years ago.

I also really don't like that I'm feeling so down over this right now. It really was a good performance, and it's not a bad piece either. Right after we finished playing, before I had to actually talk to people about the thing, I felt really truly happy, and that I had indeed accomplished something to be proud of. It's not something that's even slightly making me reconsider my decision to switch fields, but it's definitely the kind of thing I'm glad to have under my belt before that switch officially happens.


BrianR said...

wow! that is an accomplishment indeed...congrats!

Julian said...

Thanks so much!