What a difference a year and a half made…

I had a really interesting and largely satisfying concert experience this weekend, so I’d like to pause for a short rumination on the life of a composer/conductor.

This weekend, for an Ad Hoc concert at Indiana U., I performed a piece of mine called “3 Waltz Scenes”. As the name “Ad Hoc” would suggest, this sort of concert is thrown together however possible — the conductor lures players to the few allotted rehearsals with junk food and hopes that the opportunity to play decent repertoire with friends will be enough to keep them there. These things are a grudging part of student life and somehow they usually come off decently.

I had been wanting to put some of my own music on an Ad Hoc for a while (this is my second year as a master’s student at IU) and had thought about writing something new for one of these concerts. That’s my usual M.O. — I’m very much an “occasional” composer, i.e. one who writes music for particular occasions (admittedly, I’m also one who only composes occasionally, these days).

I decided, however, to trot out an older piece of mine, which I composed in the spring of ’08, and which had only been played once. The second performance of a piece has so many advantages: the music is already written, the parts are already fixed, and it affords a chance to make any corrections or improvements to the original. It’s also a right of passage for the music itself — the piece has survived its infancy and is moving on to the next phase of its life (even if it’s me who has to drag it kicking and screaming to it’s birthday party).

The performance this weekend was a major improvement on the first one in many ways, partially because of the above reasons, partially because I was working with higher-level musicians, but also because of my own development as a performer and musician. Let’s take a brief glance into history, shall we? Here’s a clip from the première:

and here’s the same segment from the concert two days ago:

So, obviously, there are a lot of differences, the main one being Tempo.  Isn’t a composer supposed to know his own tempo?  In the earlier performance, the tempo is 100 to the dotted quarter.  A year and a half later, I conducted the same music at 116.  That’s four clicks of the metronome faster — not an inconsequential difference.  Interestingly, the tempo indication that I wrote in the score is dotted quarter = 100.  So, should I go back and change the score?  I’m not sure… because I frankly think my more recent tempo is about a click too fast.  So, it seems like I’ll need another shot at this piece to really get it right.

For me, this kind of point raises a lot of philosophical questions about notated music.  Do I have more authority as the composer of the piece when I’m conducting it than somebody else would?  Especially if my interpretative decisions are so erratic?  If I as a composer am subject to the same human foibles as any other musician, why should I deny other interpreters the leeway that I would grant myself?

I’m reminded of a particular paradox in the music of Bartòk, namely that he would often write timings in his scores, not just timings of the whole piece, but even of the individual sections and phrases.  The paradox is that, if you do the math yourself and multiply the tempo by the number of beats in one of his pieces, you get one timing, if you listen to his own recordings of his music, you get another timing, and 9 times out of 10, both of those will be different than what he’s written on the page!

So what’s a boy to do?  I don’t know.  And probably I can’t know until I’ve gone deeper into my life as an artist.  And who knows, maybe when I get there, I still won’t have any idea.

What I do know is that that gold necktie that I wore back on May 17, 2008 is so gorgeous, and I remember that I drove all the way out to Woodfield Mall to by it specially from Nordstrom’s, and that it cost about 1/4 of my monthly paycheck as a Youth Orchestra Director, and I still think it was totally worth it.  But for whatever reason, I didn’t even think about wearing it for this concert the other day, and can I just say, thank God I didn’t, because how embarrassing would it have been to be wearing the same tie in two videos of the same piece?  I mean, that’s just a little too cutesy, even for me.

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Maybe he means HE’S on the piano…

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