Advice for young composers

I do a lot of projects with young composers (and when I say “young,” I’m generally referring to the under-35 set). A lot of these projects involve workshops with the composers, which are theoretically designed to simulate a kind of collaborative atmosphere. The idea is that we perform to the best of our ability under the guidance of the composer, the composer gains more experience and learns more about our instruments, his/her piece and talking to groups of musicians, and then we all go and have a nice beer.

Unfortunately, rather too often, in my experience, these workshops/rehearsals can turn sour. Too often it seems to me that interpreters start to assign points to themselves, every time they prove the composer wrong or can demonstrate that he/she has made a mistake. It goes quickly from collaborative environment to team sport. Well, a ‘team’ if you’re the ensemble. Should you be in the unfortunate position of being the composer in this situation, you’re on your own.

And in all likelihood, you might not even notice that this is happening. I’ve been amazed when in rehearsal I thought the workshop was a collaborative disaster and was sure I’d find the composer in tears in the hallway, then half an hour later I find an updated Facebook status, detailing how positively gorgeous the ensemble was to work with.

This might give the impression that one should have to tip-toe around sensitive moody performers, and it’s not really true. Well, actually sometimes it is. Moving on.

Right. So the point of all of this was that I wanted to set down a few of the ways I thought that composers could kind of protect themselves in these situations. For the most part, it’s fairly common sense stuff. Or basic professionalism. What it generally comes down to is the fact that we want to try to be as efficient as possible and these are mostly ways that you can help us to do so. My intention is not to bully composers or to be condescending. If you feel I’ve been unfair, you can take it out on me in the comments. So here goes:

* For your first rehearsal, show up on time with copies of your score and pencils (for yourself) and whatever else you might need. When I say on time, I actually mean early. If an ensemble starts a rehearsal at 10am, especially a bigger ensemble with conductor and it’s own rehearsal space, the players will be there early to warm up. That means that if you’re 10 minutes late for the start of your rehearsal, you’re actually there approximately 30 minutes later than the players. You weren’t there to advise us on the setup and you weren’t there to ask the questions individual players might have had for you before the rehearsal starts. If you are late, apologise profusely. Of course it happens, people come from other towns and trains are, well, trains. So try to make a quiet entry, apologise and ignore the daggers being shot at you. Do not, on the other hand, enter, drop your bag noisily onto the floor and then say “DOES ANYONE HAVE A PENCIL I CAN BORROW?”

* Here’s a sneaky trick that will endear you to the ensemble immediately: learn everyone’s names before you come. Ensemble websites are very handy for this. We’ve definitely learned your name. In fact, since your name is on the score we’ve been thinking about you for quite a lot of the day for many days preceding your first rehearsal. Isn’t that weird? I’ve been contemplating your name for days now while I work on your piece and suddenly you’re in the room. And you haven’t got a clue what mine is, and as far as I can tell, you’re not even interested. People’s names are a very powerful thing, and being able to say, “Hey Heather what’s happening in your part in measure 93?” rather than “CLARINET. WRONG MULTIPHONIC.” makes a rather big difference to my day.

* If you are part of a project where there are other young composers involved, go to their rehearsals (and make sure you have extra scores in case they come to yours). There’s a nice kind of solidarity that happens there (you have your own team!) and it will also give the ensemble the feeling that you’re invested in the project as a whole, and that you care about a long-term relationship with the group, rather than just the furthering of your own illustrious career! And there WILL be issues in other people’s pieces that will be useful to you in yours… and of course the ensemble likes to have an audience too. We give repeat performances of a lot of works, and while of course we pick those pieces based on the works themselves, if you’re lovely to be with and interested in us, it certainly won’t hurt.

* Think very carefully about any planned theatrical/movement elements of your piece. Saying, “Well, it’s not like I could imagine how it would look when 15 people did this on stage,” is a very very strange thing to hear from the composer in a rehearsal. It comes down to very basic things, I think. For example, if you have diagrams with arm movements, be clear whether we are mirroring the diagram (choose this option! it’s much easier to read!) or not. While this may all be very easily explained should you be in the room, chances are you won’t be for the first rehearsal. If we need to spend any amount of time trying to guess what you meant, that’s time we could have spent getting the piece together. If you want the entire band to look in one direction or another, consider the fact that we won’t be sitting in a totally straight line in order to see the conductor or each other. This means that if I turn my head 90 degrees to the right, the string players on the other side of the room will have to turn their heads even further in order to match my turn visually. Unless your violinist is an owl, this could be tricky. If you want us to sit in a perfectly straight line, alternatively, this could make visual contact with other players or with the conductor difficult. I would also say that if your movements are any more complicated than really basic things and you won’t be able to attend the very first rehearsal, make some videos of yourself doing the movements and put them online somewhere. Otherwise we waste a lot of time trying to guess exactly what you meant by the little drawings.

* So, everyone has problems with deadlines and we’re all so used to it now that I don’t even really want to bring the subject up. However, composers who moan about deadlines, especially in public (hello, Facebook), give me violent thoughts. Not meeting them is one thing (and let’s face it, most of us are setting early deadlines because we know you won’t meet them anyway), but complaining about them is a little offensive. As though evil performers create deadlines just to cause pain and suffering to poor composers. We have many ways to cause pain and suffering, but deadlines are actually just an attempt at being practical and organised. Wacky, I know.

* It wouldn’t be the worst idea to prepare yourself to speak about your work in general if invited to a rehearsal. There’s nothing more endearing than a composer who can speak articulately and passionately (and in a relatively short amount of time!) about his or her work. For us, it’s a chance to understand and feel included in your sound world. I think it’s very easy for an ensemble to make a composer feel put on the spot in this situation: suddenly 15 people are looking at you, waiting for you to say something brilliant. Of course, it doesn’t need to be that. And often, the questions aren’t exactly inspiring. But having a clear idea of what you might say if I were to ask you some of the following questions might make you feel more comfortable in these situations (of course some of these questions won’t apply to every piece):

  • How does this piece fit in with your work as a whole?
  • Tell us about the structure of the piece.
  • What relation does the title bear to the music?
  • What are you trying to do that is “new” in this piece?
  • How do you envisage the performers’ relation to each other?

* After the concert, you may feel distracted by thoughts about your piece. These may be positive thoughts, they may be negative ones. You might have the feeling that you’d like to go and be by yourself for a little while (in a positive or negative way). This is all very fine. But please, say something to us first. If you didn’t like the performance, straight after might not be the ideal time to talk about it (there’s a lot of adrenaline running through our veins still and perhaps we’re looking forward to that first post-concert beer), but something like, “Hey, that performance gave me a lot to think about. Would love to talk to you about it in greater detail, but in the meantime shall we have a beer?” is music to our ears. Or mine, anyway.

I think I might just leave it at that for now. This list was never meant to be definitive, nor as I said before, was it intended to bully composers. (It also doesn’t have much to do with the clarinet, specifically, but I think that might be another blog post!) But I do hope that it provides some food for thought and stimulates a bit of conversation on the ol’ Interwebs.

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36 Responses to Advice for young composers

  1. Edd Caine says:

    It’s a very good list, thank you :) I wholly agree with everything said here.

    I do wonder about the other side of the isle. Maybe it’s not the right thing to be thinking about, but the flow of criticism is often a little one-sided. Performer’s attitude = “we are doing this thing for you, so be nice”, but the composer is rarely seen as doing something for the performer, despite often months of hard graft, for usually no pay (not that that is necessary important).

    So I wonder if there should be a similar list for performers, or more importantly, for organisers, from the composer’s standpoint. I can think of a few things :)

    Very good blog article, keep it up

    Edd Caine :)

    • heatherroche says:

      I’m sorry this wasn’t more clear in the article, but as I’ve already responded on Facebook – this article was not inspired by the behaviour of composers, but that of performers. We can be a mean bunch, this is simply aimed to help you arm yourself a little… :)

      • Edd Caine says:

        Yes, I know! And it’s explained very well. I just felt there were things to be said on this side too – please don’t take it to mean I disagree, I very much agree with your article!

  2. Tawnie O says:

    Brava! As a composer (and now, sometimes, composition professor), I didn’t feel at all bullied by this post. It’s full of terrific advice; I’ll be sure to pass it along to my students. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Advice on Composers for Performers and Organisers | blog

  4. Some good points, Heather. It’s good when performers point out our mistakes. That’s how we learn to be better composers. Sometimes we also simply don’t know how to notate something we want to hear, so what you see is our best approximation and we are curious to see how you will interpret it and if you might offer a better solution. Of course, there are productive ways of doing it and mean ways. I have also had experiences with performers who initially told me that something was impossible and then a year later discovered, after doing other rep, that it was actually very possible. So, that’s another reason to be careful about how you point out potential ‘mistakes.’ Now perhaps you could give some advice to performers on how to handle these situations better?

    • heatherroche says:

      I also dislike it when performers use the word ‘impossible’. I rather like ‘improbable’ ;) (Actually I read once that the oboist Chris Redgate likes to use percentages when it comes to thinks like super high notes and multiphonics… something I’ve stolen… helps the composer decide how much risk he/she wants to take, or for the performer to take)

      I’m not sure performers would be as likely to read this as composers are, or as open to advice — I’d like to give it a go, though. Thanks :)

  5. Another wonderful post! I’ve been a composer in this game for a long time, worked with many fabulous performers and still learned some new things! I’ll be sure to point my students to this post!

  6. Angus Grant says:

    Lovely work Heather. Towards the end of the run of my opera, I thanked one of the percussionists for all the help and for being so patient with my terrible conducting. “Oh that was fine” he replied, ” it’s fine when the conductor knows what he doesn’t know”. Working with the orchestra, although terrifying, was the highlight of the whole experience and their input on composition matters was invaluable. The only thing I would ask them next time is that they smile when they are enjoying themselves. Would have reduced my nerves considerably..

    • heatherroche says:

      Thanks very much, and thanks for sharing your experience. Having seen the way orchestras treat composers and conductors they don’t like… well, I’m not sure there’s a way one can win there ;)

  7. Jee Soo Shin says:

    Wow, this is very useful. I agree.. sometimes composers are so immersed in realising their sound world they treat performers like gadgets and not as personalities. Thanks for such detailed advice!

  8. Seth Waters says:

    As a composer and vocalist, I’ve been on both sides of the aisle. I was performing a song cycle for a composer and he didn’t know mine or my friend playing percussion’s name. THERE ARE TWO OF US. WE’VE BEEN E-MAILING FOR A MONTH! COME ON!

    If you don’t know someone’s name, just ask politely and then go from there.
    Also, don’t sit so far away from the rehearsal you have to shout like a dictator. Don’t meander so close that you make the performers uncomfortable.

  9. Hildigunnur says:

    Excellent! I’ll be sure to pass this on to my students :)

  10. Very, very good post. I wish I could have had this to send to composers in the days when I played workshops and did premieres. One thing I’d add is that if you put in a special effect or difficult passage, you should a) research it or ask me (how many times have I been given multiphonics from Bartolozzi that only work on Italian clarinets?); b) only put in effects and passages that you care deeply about. They should be integral to the structure or aesthetic of the piece. Back to Bartolozzi, I once analysed a twelve-tone piece I was going to play at a conference, because I needed multiphonics that were not only playable, but would also contain the right notes for the set. Having found a few replacements that were close, but would produce one or two pitches outside the set, I chose the nearest few and played them for the composer, asking which he would like. He didn’t care which. Why? Making the score was enough for him, or perhaps he appreciated my work and didn’t want to put me out more. But that’s not all: he said that when the piece had been premiered, almost a year before I received it, the other clarinettist had told him that the multiphonics were unplayable and he hadn’t changed them. The other clarinettist had merely put in his own favourite multiphonics and just played it, without worry about the effect on the structure. I should have done that.

    • heatherroche says:

      Hi Virginia,

      Thanks for your comment! It’s definitely contributing to my feeling that some clarinet-specific posts are on their way… so if you don’t mind I’ll use the opportunity to respond to you in detail :)

      It’s a shame about these “Italian” (well, full-Boehm I think is probably a better–or more accurate–term) instruments, since I don’t really think that many Italians are playing them anymore. We still pay for these problems every day with Berio (where the dyads come from Garbarino not Bartolozzi but same problem!) and Sciarrino… :)

      I’m having similar problems this week with a composer who has used Rehfeldt to write multiphonics for Eb clarinet, which “work” but aren’t nearly as stable and aren’t quite the same pitches as on the Bb. Could also just be me, I suppose, my Eb playing isn’t what it should be perhaps :/

      Anyway, the point I really wanted to make was that I guess it’s important to remember that composers use multiphonics for a lot of different reasons and pitch isn’t always one of them. So just as he should have checked them with you, you perhaps should have found out what he was looking for in multiphonics before going through the effort rather than assuming it was pitch content?

      • Ah, Heather, if he/she’s got the idea from the Rehfeldt, it’s probably my fault. I’m an Eefer specialist who studied with Rehfeldt. I instigated the Hartzell Hilton Ensemble with some like-minded performers who thought that there weren’t enough Eb clarinet and viola ensembles in the world. I’d expected by now this grouping would have replaced the string quartet, but people can be stubborn. The multis are gettable — they can shimmer in the way the Beefer can’t — so it’s worth pursuing. And if you prefer it, you might try Barney Childs’ Sleep…then going on for A clarinet and percussion, which was written for me and which I premiered. Years ago….

      • heatherroche says:

        Ah, interesting! So writing that the multis would work on Eb was your idea then? You were studying with him while he was writing it? Would certainly love to hear more about his process :)

        I appreciate your use of the word ‘shimmer’ – it’s certainly not the one I was using in my more frustrated moments today ;)

        It seems to me it wouldn’t hurt to have a separate chart for Eb for clarity’s sake (also for A clarinet, since one can get a few gorgeous close dyads that aren’t possible on Bb). Have started working on my own a little bit, more or less because it’s been good practice for stabilising multiphonics in general, though not sure I’ve come up with anything so far that rivals what one can get on Bb.

    • heatherroche says:

      oops, hit send a bit too soon – meant to finish by thanking you again for your comments :)

      • Ooops, too soon for me, too. About the serial piece. It was a piece that I had to play as resident clarinettist for a composer conference. I was on the phone (in those days) to the composer in LA several times, and he never really said don’t go to the trouble, but having been assigned to this piece, I would have made the effort or refused to play it, or left the multis out entirely. Something like that. It comes from playing a lot of indeterminate music. I interpret the given notation and its implications as responsibly as possible because that’s me, not the composer. If that means doing more with a bad piece than it deserves, then so be it. In the end, people came up saying what a lovely performance of a rotten piece. That was all right.

      • heatherroche says:

        :) Sounds like the best possible outcome. I might have been a bit hard on you in my first comment – I was worried the comments on this blog would simply turn into composer-bashing — which really wasn’t the point at all! Anyway if I misjudged I apologise!

  11. Bill Cutter says:

    Wise and practical advice!! Thanks for sharing this!

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  13. MaxHummus says:

    I would love to have an owl as violinist, it would be awesome.

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  17. Hugo Bell says:

    God I wish I’d found this blog post years ago! Relieved I’ve been doing a lot of these things already but this should be essential reading for all, thank you!

    • heatherroche says:

      Hey Hugo – glad it’s useful. Often thought of updating it, as it seems like such an old one now!

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