American Composers Orchestra


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About the Jan. 21, 2005 "Orchestra Underground" Concert

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Swooping the Orchestra...

by Jason Freeman

Kurt Vonnegut once described two approaches to writing:

Swoopers write...quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they're done they're done.

When it comes to composition, I’ve always been a swooper. I get the first draft out of the way as quickly as possible so I can get to my favorite part: editing. For me, editing is more than just tidying up; it’s a process of gradually discovering the music I want to hear and determining how best to notate it. I imagine hearing what I’ve written, then critique and revise it, then imagine hearing the new version, then critique and revise it again, and on and on until I’m satisfied. The final score often bears little resemblance to the first draft.

Many performers do something similar when they practice. In the initial swoop, they focus on basic technical mastery of a score. Then comes the editing: they play the piece or a small passage from the piece over and over again, each time critiquing their interpretation and revising their approach.

And even listeners can be swoopers. As they listen to a piece of music for the first time, they quickly develop ideas about what they are hearing — whether those ideas be subconscious expectations of what is to come or full-blown theories explaining their experience as a listener. And as they continue to hear the piece, or as they hear it again, or as they remember hearing it, they continually evaluate and revise those ideas.

All three of these “editing” processes are feedback loops: transformation over many stages of listening, critique, and revision. They usually operate independently of each other, even though they are all linked to the same piece of music — like three ice skaters each circling a rink on a different day.

This independence is often inevitable. Imagine, for example, that you are listening to an old historical recording of a Beethoven symphony. The composer wrote the score, then the performers interpreted the score, then you reacted to the performance. There is no way that your activities as a listener could influence the composition or the performance to which you are listening.

But now, imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall, listening to the world premiere of a new orchestra piece. The composer, the performers, and the listeners are all sitting in the hall together, but their activities are still largely independent. The composer probably finished the score weeks or months before the concert; the performers rehearsed it beforehand as well. It’s mostly just you, along with the rest of the audience, who is actively developing ideas about the music as you hear it for the first time.

You do get a chance to respond to the orchestra and the composer, applauding them and perhaps even talking to them, but these opportunities come too late to affect the performance or the score. Short of an errant cough or cell phone ring or a riot, the musicians neither see nor hear you as they perform: the audience sits quietly in darkness, and the players focus their attention on the conductor, who has his back turned toward you.

John Cage put it this way: “Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with each other?”

There is nothing inherently wrong with this paradigm. But when I attend orchestral concerts, I always feel that I’ve witnessed something great, not that I’ve been a part of something great; it’s more like watching a movie at the theater than like cheering for the home team at a sports stadium.

So when the ACO asked me to write a new piece for Orchestra Underground — a series whose mission is to “challenge conventional notions about symphonic music and the concert experience itself” — I wanted to create a work which would facilitate interaction among composer, performers, and listeners during the performance. Audience input would immediately affect the score and its interpretation. The composer, performers, and listeners would all still have their own little feedback loops, but now there would also be a giant feedback loop that connected them all together.

In many of my recent works, I have found technology to be a powerful tool for facilitating this kind of collaboration. Instead of composing a conventional score, I develop computer software which plays the role of the composer, generating music according to my own instructions and the activities of others. In many of these works, I’ve dispensed with conventional performing ensembles and performance venues altogether in favor of web sites, installations, or even toll-free telephone numbers. Performers and listeners merge into a single group of “users” who interact with the software to help create the music they hear.

But with Glimmer, my new piece for ACO, I had to work within a more traditional context. The orchestra remains on stage, the audience remains in their seats. And I did not want to merely turn the audience into additional performers; I wanted them to influence rather than directly create the sounds they heard — the chorus of Greek theater more than the chorus of Messiah Sing-Ins.

The result is a giant feedback loop which complements traditional aural lines of communication with visual ones. The musicians communicate to the audience through sound, just as they always do. The audience then communicates to the composer (or rather to the composition’s software) by turning light sticks on and off over the course of the performance; their actions are captured by video cameras and analyzed by the software. Then, the software communicates to the performers by changing the colors of lights mounted on each player’s music stand, sending them instructions about what to play. Everyone is connected — performers to listeners to composer back to performers — and the giant feedback loop is complete.

There is a contradiction lurking here. As a composer, I am obsessed with editing my music, but with a piece such as Glimmer, I have given up a tremendous amount of control. After a certain point, it becomes impossible to imagine hearing the music I have written, since I cannot predict how listeners and performers will realize it. My own efforts at editing eventually hit a brick wall.

But actually, such a wall always exists. There is a gap, even with the most conventional of compositions, between the performance which I can imagine in my head as I edit and the performance which ultimately takes place in the real world. This gap can be bridged in part by training and experience, but I can never predict exactly how performers will interpret the score I write. Nor would I want to. Every performer brings a new perspective to a work, and that can lead to unexpected but often wonderful things.

In Glimmer, I simply hit the wall sooner than usual. I cannot even predict the notes which will be played, or the order in which they will be played, or the times at which various sections of the orchestra will play. I have given up fine-level control and instead defined a process and created a general structure. By doing so, I hope that interesting and maybe even wonderful things will emerge at the performance, things which I never could have predicted or imagined myself.

Glimmer is not a protest against current orchestral performance conventions. It is not a vision for the symphony hall of the future. It is not a marketing gimmick to draw younger audiences to classical music. It is merely an experiment in reshuffling the roles of composer, performer, and listener a little bit, so that they can have something more to do with each other, so that they can all be a part of the same moment. We are sitting in a room — together — so why not?

--Jason Freeman is the composer of "Glimmer"
which premieres at ACO's Orchestra Underground performance Jan 21, 2005.

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