Angélica Negrón will be previewing her new song “El Colapso” February 3,2016 as part of ACO’s Composers OutFront program. Click here for more details.
Inside and Outside the Orchestra
Some Thoughts About My Experience as ACO’s 2014-2015 Van Lier Fellow
By: Angélica Negrón
I grew up playing in orchestras never even remotely thinking that I would one day write for one. As a violin student in the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico I spent an extensive amount of time playing music from the Classical and Romantic period without realizing there were living people amongst us writing music as well. I remember vividly the moment when a colleague mentioned he was planning on learning Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto for a violin competition at the Conservatory. I didn’t know anything about this composer but from the
moment I heard him practicing I quickly fell in love with the piece. He ended up winning the competition and part of his prize was to play the Concerto with the orchestra I was a part of. This was my first experience connecting with a work of art in a way that I strongly felt I wanted to do something similar with my own art. This was also my entry point to the world of contemporary music, even though Shostakovich was a long-gone composer by then, which opened my eyes and ears to the endless possibilities of new sounds. From then I started digging at the small library at the Conservatory looking for scores of living composers (I was successful in finding George Crumb’s Black Angels) as well as music/book stores looking for music that was being written at that moment. I encountered the work of Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, John Cage and Bang on a Can and my life completely changed.
At the end of my undergraduate studies I was very lucky to have the
opportunity to write a piece for a young composers workshop from the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. I wrote my first orchestra piece titled “Pequeño Sueño en Rojo” (Small Dream in Red) inspired by a Kandinsky painting of the same name. It was a terrifying, exciting, overwhelming and transformative experience to say the least. Needless to say I learned a great deal of things about orchestration with this first piece but mostly I learned that writing for orchestra is a particularly intense process in which you devote an immense amount of time to something that will then be given a microscopic fraction of that time in rehearsals to bring it to life. This is part of why makes it so exciting and terrifying at the same time, the limited amount of time that you’ll get for rehearsals and the intimidating instrumental force juxtaposed with the vast possibilities of this massive medium.
I loved writing for orchestra so much that I ended up writing two more orchestra works,
another one for the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and one more for the NYU Symphony Orchestra as part of my graduate studies there, as well a ballet for large ensemble. After this (around 2008) I experienced a pivotal transitional year between my masters and doctoral studies in which I had a revelation that significantly change the course of my music. Essentially I started to write the music I wanted to listen to, which I know sounds like an obvious choice for a composer, but in my case it’s something I struggled with a lot while being at school. For the past seven years I’ve been on this path exploring this direction mostly in the context of small ensembles with electronics as well as solo pieces (often times with electronics as well).
When I heard last year that I was selected as the Van Lier Fellow at the American Composers Orchestra I was ecstatic about re-encountering this great medium at this point in my life and also honored about the opportunity to work with such an outstanding orchestra that focuses on working with living composers. I saw this as an amazing opportunity to not only immerse myself in the professional environment of ACO and its guest artists but also as an open window to start thinking about how my recent compositional ideas could translate into the orchestral medium. This being said, I was very clear that writing a piece for ACO was not part of the fellowship but I knew that being around the orchestra so much as well as attending many rehearsals and listening to the incredibly diverse programming of ACO’s season would inevitably start giving me ideas on how I would want to write for the orchestra when the opportunity arose (little did I knew this would come sooner rather than later!).
Attending many ACO rehearsals and being literally inside the orchestra, hearing everything so close, gave me a different perspective on the music being played as well as on the dynamic of the musicians and composers during the rehearsal process. It’s really interesting seeing how each composer has their own unique way of communicating both verbally and musically what they’re looking for in their pieces and to see how the conductor and the performers interpret this and help bring the pieces to life. Attending and observing the ACO’s Underwood New Music Readings was incredibly insightful and gave me a lot of important and practical information not only about the business of composing but also about the importance of effective and direct communication between the composer and the conductor as well as the musicians. It was also the best orchestration lesson I’ve ever had having the opportunity to see how the pieces by the seven emerging composers evolved throughout the week as well as observing the revisions they made and how those decisions and changes affected the piece. Another great experience as part of my fellowship was meeting Meredith Monk who’s one of my main inspirations as a composer and also the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Observing Meredith work with the orchestra was particularly enthralling, as she’s a composer that often works with her performers for extended periods of time and this case it was quite the opposite. Having the chance to witness the rehearsal process of one of her rare orchestral works was something exceptional that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
I was pleasantly surprised at an ACO rehearsal when President Michael
Geller and Artistic Director Derek Bermel mentioned that they wanted to commission me to write a new piece for the orchestra as part of the SONiC Festival. Naturally I was overjoyed with this amazing opportunity and I immediately started thinking about some pretty ambitious ideas. When I heard that the premiere would take place at the Winter Garden I decided to write a piece, which used the performance space as a compositional element. I thought this would be a great occasion to bring in a collaborator I’ve been working recently with: instrument builder Nick Yulman. We talked about some ideas and choose to incorporate for the piece an ensemble of mechanical instruments, which would be placed in different locations in the space interacting with the orchestra to create an immersive sonic landscape that surrounds the audience. This was a bit of a risky idea as I would have no way of trying it out before the day of the performance but I was elated with the results as it all came together like magic during the day of the concert. The space’s reverberation blended in like another instrument and Nick’s gorgeous instruments resonated throughout the space in an entrancing way. After 7 years of writing my latest orchestra piece and an intensive year of being immersed in this wonderful orchestra, it was an incredible experience to be able to explore my current voice through this medium and to put into practice all that I’ve learned as well as put out there all that I’ve yet to learn.
Needless to say it was still terrifying, still exciting, still overwhelming and still very much