Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Conducting Contemporary Music #1

Although I have not been in the game for that many years, I would say I have already quite an extensive experience with contemporary music. Since I started conducting, I have had a regular trickle of gigs conducting contemporary music. They mostly come in one of three basic formats:
  1. Workshop - wherein the composer is there for the entire rehearsal period, and where I have 'carte blanche' to try and help the composers improve on the piece - ideally in a closeknit partnership with the composer himself, with the musicians and sometimes including another 'sensei' (like an older, respected composer).
    These workshops - of which I have done at least 6 or 7 - can be a very mixed experience, since it often involves very fresh and unschooled composers and sometimes even the occasional nutjob. By that I mean someone who has absolutely no idea of what composition is really about, but somehow slipped through the application process and is now presenting a panel of expert musicians with his arrangement of something similar to the string parts of a Beyonce track.
    I have had a lot of great experiences with hardworking, humble, talented composers at such workshops, but about 90% of the time is spent sorting out basic mistakes, explaining basic compositional concepts (that their teachers apparently have not bothered to pass on), controlling egos and soothing frustrated musicians who are trying to concieve the young masterminds' incomprehensible babble.
    What is very important to note though, is that by doing this we are an active part of a sorting process, which is important and necessary. Can you imagine how many halfwit composers were active at the time of Mozart or Brahms, and which whose music we are now thankfully free from listening to(well, mostly anyway)? These workshops are a part of the process of sorting the wheat from the chaff, and therefore they are necessary and extremely important for the nurturing and development of contemporary music.

  2. Generic Contemporary Music Festival Concert: wherein the ensemble and I are allowed to focus on performing the given piece to the best of our abilities. A standard concert production with typically 4-5 rehearsals and a concert in a small venue for a small crowd consisting mainly of other composers.
    The quality of the pieces is generally much higher technically than at the workshops, but not necessarily more satisfying artistically.
    More often then not, there will be 2-3 musicians in the group (of proclaimed "specialists") who have not prepared for the concert and will reply to any unusual technique or demanding passages with the standard catch phrase: "This is impossible to play!" (A phrase Richard Strauss heard a million times!!)
    What they are really saying is: "I could probably play this if I had taken the time and effort to really practise it, but I couldn't be bothered, since this gig pays like sh*t and no one can tell the difference in the end anyway."
    They might sometimes be right with that last bit, but they are not right in passing judging before the fact or without proper evidence or jury!!
    These festivals like our local UNM, Nordic Music Days or Music And Art Around are showcases for young composers, and a great opportunity for many of them. I hope these types of festivals will continue to thrive and attract government funding for they are the next step in that process of sorting.
  3. The last rung of the ladder is of course the completely top-professional Generic Symphony Orchestra Plays Contemporary Music-session/Generic Opera Company Performs Newly Commisioned Opera.
    These are the most costly (very!) and prestigious (for the composer!) productions of new music, and they get the occasional wellearned media coverage. They can be very frustrating for all involved, but they can also be great triumphs and breakthroughs for both composers and for 'art music' as such. I will share some of my own personal up and downs later on. I have conducted contemporary opera at the Royal Danish Opera and premiered new orchestra pieces with the Cph:Phil, and there are interesting stories behind all these experiences.
Now it's time for me to focus on what has so far been a very rewarding experience with contemporary music - Poul Ruders opera "Selma Jezkova" - and leave you with this insight:
"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones." - John Cage

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If you could magically create your dream conductor, but he/she could only posess one quality, he/she should preferably be...