Magazine article The Spectator

First-Night Nerves

Magazine article The Spectator

First-Night Nerves

Article excerpt

The life of a composer is an attractive one. He is not personally responsible for the ensemble which will perform his music, yet all the rehearsal time is made over to his requirements. In the performance all he has to do is sit and listen, and then upstage everybody at the end when he takes his bow. As a very inexperienced composer, I am on full alert to the niceties of my current situation, receiving a première at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The forum for this is a series called Works and Process, masterminded by Mary Sharp Cronson. She takes astonishing risks. The bulk of the concert I have been contributing to is made up of contemporary ballet, with music so extreme that it was found necessary to invite a specialist group from Paris -- the Ensemble Alternance -- to play it. Amplified polystyrene blocks scratched against themselves are part of the sound-world in question. The dancers are from New Yorkbased ballet schools. It has turned out that 15-minute ballets, even if intensely contemporary, are popular. The 300-seat theatre in the basement of the Guggenheim has sold out two nights running, and I am really, really sure that has nothing to do with me. But here again my position was not unenviable. It was clearly hoped that I would provide some contrast both to the dancing and the prevailing musical aesthetic, yet the audience was not in the first instance there to hear what I had to say. I could take risks of my own.

Out of deference to the French musicians present, and indeed the host of Parisbased sponsors of the event, I set four rondeaux by Charles d'Orleans. These I scored for contralto, guitar and two trumpets; and although, through lack of familiarity, I am inclined to chronicle every aspect of what I am doing, I can report that in the act of composition there is scope for a small (in my case, no doubt very small) miracle to take place. Sounds and ideas do seem to come from nowhere, uncontrived. On hearing the results months later, I could not remember ever having consciously thought those notes.

This is quite the opposite of performing someone else's music, where in a sense everything is contrived, every step calculated in order to give a true performance. …

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