Orchestra Underground…Beyond the Surface
Orchestra Underground, conducted by music director Steven Sloane on Friday, February 27, 2004 at 7:30pm, marks American Composers Orchestra’s (ACO) debut at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. This unconventional, multimedia event is a milestone for ACO, the first concert in an ongoing, ambitious new initiative that will take full advantage of Zankel’s state-of-the-art facilities. Two world premieres have been commissioned especially for this event by important and distinctive young composers: The Right Weather for chamber orchestra and piano by Lisa Bielawa, with pianist Andrew Armstrong; and Gotham, a multimedia collaborative work being created by Michael Gordon with Ridge Theater artists, filmmaker Bill Morrison, visual artist Laurie Olinder, and director Bob McGrath. Frank J. Oteri recently spoke with artistic director Robert Beaser and music Director Steven Sloane about ACO's upcoming debut at Zankel Hall, "Orchestra Underground"…
FRANK J. OTERI: For years, American Composers Orchestra has established itself as an entity that plays at Carnegie Hall, a place that has a lot of associations with people: musical associations, cultural associations, associations that go beyond the venue just in terms of the context, the social milieu… Carnegie Hall is redefining itself this year with Zankel Hall, and the fact that you folks are now going to be part of that redefinition, so what does playing at Zankel mean to ACO?
STEVEN SLOANE: Of course, you're correct, there's been a long association with Carnegie Hall. The additional venue of Zankel Hall is crucial in the future of our orchestra. Twenty-five years ago when the orchestra was established, there was a great gap in the American orchestral literature. Since that time, many orchestras, including large ones, play American music on a regular basis. And now, the challenge for ACO is to see what can we do to help redefine what American orchestras are doing, and help to define what American music will mean for orchestras and ensembles in the future…and I think Zankel being a smaller venue, and one that encompasses practical possibilities, multi-media possibilities, smaller, larger, different kinds of ensembles, maybe even different kinds of instrumentations, will go a long way to help us to achieve that goal.
ROBERT BEASER: I echo that. In America, there's a serious gap of repertoire for an ensemble that's neither fish nor fowl, neither chamber music nor full-blown orchestral music… This is a repertoire which is very importantly championed by European ensembles, like Ensemble Modern, the London Sinfonietta, and many others. In America, I think we have a real opportunity to find and to encourage composers who haven't had the opportunity to write music which is basically for this type of ensemble, and really fill the gap, which I think is quite glaring. This is really a critical area which we can focus on and really contribute to.
FRANK J. OTERI: It's true that a lot of orchestras are doing more American repertoire now than they ever had done before ACO was around, and we all like to think, and I believe it's true, that it's in good part to the efforts of ACO. But most of the American works orchestras have been doing fit in with the standard plan of what an orchestra is. It's music that is tailor-made to go along with the program of Brahms and Beethoven. And the kinds of repertoire we're talking about here really don't fit in with what's gone on before. They're doing something completely new within the context of a large ensemble. So how do you see this repertoire having an ongoing life beyond ACO?
STEVEN SLOANE: We attempt to redefine by choosing pieces that will also make an impact on the literature for the future. A perfect example is this program coming up in Zankel on February 27, where we have 2 composers for the whole evening. Same as last year when we did Samuel Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra. The idea is to broaden the spectrum of the repertoire that will include pieces that are not just between 5 and 15 minutes of length in the American orchestra circuit. The second part of your question is how would pieces live on after they've been composed… This is an issue that pertains not only to American composers, but pertains to composers worldwide. There is always the desire to hear what's new and there's that so-called "world premiere" stigma. They get one hearing and are never heard again. One of the things that ACO also is doing is not only presenting premieres but also presenting pieces that have been performed in the past, and giving them a further avenue and venue within which to shine as individual compositions. And I think that is also very important for ACO to continue to explore repertoire that is not being heard for the first time, pieces that had had hearings elsewhere before, not by ACO and not in New York.
FRANK J. OTERI: Certainly over the years ACO has been the greatest champion of Roger Sessions' symphonies, which had all been done before but really were largely forgotten by a lot of people. They still haven't reached all of the orchestras we hope they'll eventually reach but they're definitely in the consciousness of a lot more people because of ACO. I'm wondering though, in terms of redefining the orchestra… Typically a composer will come in, a piece will be done, there'll be a couple of rehearsals, and it's just a part of a larger program, a larger season. The kinds of works like the two that are being done--The Right Weather by Lisa Bielawa and Gotham by Michael Gordon--really require some rethinking, thinking out of the box, which is a much different process. Before we talk about getting other orchestras to do them, it would be very interesting to find out how ACO is engaging in this process. What kind of rehearsal time is required? How are these rehearsals different than rehearsals for a standard piece?
ROBERT BEASER: Well, we approach them as they come. The exciting thing about doing premieres is obviously the challenge that we need to be flexible; we love that. But in terms of defining the repertoire, which was your previous question, I think that composers are pragmatic. There are reasons that a lot of people haven't written for orchestras. A lot of composers haven't written for orchestras because there haven't been great opportunities in the orchestral world for many kinds of music being written today, so they migrated to other ways of writings, smaller ways, more pragmatic ways, more practical ways. I think one of the great things that ACO can do is to continue to provide new opportunities for composers…who maybe wouldn't normally have the opportunity to write for a larger orchestra, to give opportunities to the composers who never would have considered writing in a way that is less than traditional. We can fill all of these things quite beautifully in the Zankel venue. I think that there are so many ways that Zankel Hall can enhance the repertoire, to create opportunities for composers on a lot of different levels; it's really quite exciting!
FRANK J. OTERI: Last August, Lisa Bielawa was telling me about her first visit to Zankel Hall. It was before the opening and people were still wearing hard hats. She was so excited about the differences in acoustics from different locations in the hall. I don't know how The Right Weather has evolved since then, but at the time she was talking to me about wanting to have musicians scattered all over the venue. Now, in terms of rehearsing such a piece and the logistics of that, how does it work?
STEVEN SLOANE: In dealing with Lisa, and also Michael, we really wanted them to do something that was written for the hall. So we asked both composers to look very carefully at the hall, and see in what way could they integrate in all aspects of it since it is an inaugural event. As for how we're rehearsing it, there's a saying that in contemporary music, there's as much organization as there is art, I think this is a case in point that, where, as a composer, the technical side of realizing a piece like hers is that one needs a lot of careful thoughts and planning. We approach it as we approach every other technical musical issue, in that it needs a technical solution, and we see these kinds of issues from many other contemporary composers whether they are writing for large orchestras, small orchestras, ensembles, etc.
FRANK J. OTERI: Are you being offered a good deal of rehearsal time in the space?
STEVEN SLOANE: Not particularly, but again with good planning I think it is adequate. And…we don't know, this is our first time in the hall, so we're learning it, like as much as they are learning about what we need, we are learning about what we need. It might actually be more appropriate for you to re-ask this question in a few months because we'd be able to give you a number of anecdotal responses to what happened...
FRANK J. OTERI: Michael Gordon, of course, has already written spatially unconventional pieces where you'd have members of the ensemble on different levels. His piece Gotham looks like a 3-dimensional orchestra…
ROBERT BEASER: He was an ideal choice to write for this venue, and we're really excited to have Ridge Theater involved because there're really quite unique and extraordinary and we thought it'd be a great opportunity to see all this come together visually and musically.
FRANK J. OTERI: When a composer studies orchestration, he or she learns various techniques, and then acquires experience from working with musicians and picks up other techniques, and eventually develops a personal sound world that should come across no matter who is playing the music. But, with pieces like this, which are so much about these specific players in a very specific setting, it seems much harder to predict the result. How can someone write such a piece without working intimately with the ensemble in order to figure out what those sounds are?
ROBERT BEASER: I agree with you that the more experience one has with an ensemble the better one knows it. Obviously, people like Steve Reich created his own ensemble, and Paul Dresher works with his own ensemble on a daily basis. The music evolves slowly over time and they have a very intimate knowledge of their players. I think this is a wonderful and fantastic way to work. But, in any endeavor, when it comes to creating, whether it be writing for traditional orchestra and making orchestral sound that's never been heard before in that particular way, you are really inventing something out of whole cloth and trying to imagine what it might sound like. I don't particularly see the challenge of writing for this particular acoustic setting as much different than just trying to figure out whether if you put the clarinet over the flute in this particular tessitura, in this particular range, and combine it with a pizzicato in the strings, what that's going to sound like when you combine it with a voice. I mean in other words there are all these alchemy sorts of issues that come up in orchestration even when you're writing for a traditional orchestra, or when you're trying to deal with whatever may happen in the venue you're working for, and I see this is a logical extension… It's all a little bit scary, but it's exciting and you do your best to try to come up with what you imagine it might be, and of course reality has a way of taking over.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now will the composers have an opportunity to work with the ensemble to try to flesh out some of the stuff before, during the rehearsal process?
STEVEN SLOANE: Certainly they will. Not all the rehearsals will be in the hall itself, but we have a rehearsal process where I try to encourage the composers to be there as much as possible from the beginning, particularly for pieces like this… I'm sure they will have a lot to say and a lot to add during the process.
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to take us back to the beginning of this discussion. This concert is called "Orchestra Underground," and obviously Zankel Hall is underground. Carnegie's spin on the new hall has been "Carnegie goes underground." But not just because it's geographically underground. Underground has all these other connotations of being sort of rebellious: "underground music," "underground currents," etc. What does the word "underground" mean for both of you when you put it together with the word "orchestra"? What do you feel it will mean to the larger orchestral community, to the people who attend the American Symphony Orchestra League conferences, to other orchestras around the country and around the world?
STEVEN SLOANE: I think the connotations that you've brought up are ones that are similar to my own, and very appealing. It's about cutting-edge repertoire. And the idea of underground being rebellious or against the norm, unconventional… All of those connotations really fit the bill of what we're hoping to develop in Zankel Hall. And as you say, geographically it is underground; so it helps people to identify… Our audience identifies themselves with what we're doing as opposed to the larger Stern Auditorium where we also perform.
BEASER: I think it counters the traditional notion that the orchestra
has boundaries… There's a long history and there are lots of rules,
and there are things that you can and can't do and certainly Stern Hall
reflects that on just about every angle. We love the idea of feeling
like some of those rigid rules and expectations have been lifted, and
there's an opportunity for people to really spin out in other directions
and imagine new worlds, whether they'd be subversive or benign or somewhere