Carnegie Hall Workshop: Post-mortem

The child, bringer of light received its première at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on Monday night. The hall was reasonably full, the audience quite varied. We were even graced with the presence of a group of nuns in dark blue and brown habit. I know music is a big part of religious culture, but it was still awesome to see them there.

with cellist Paul Dwyer after the concert

I’ve had some very satisfying performances with soloists in the past. But this was really my best première. Having a chance to hear the piece every day over the course of a week allowed me to really understand its sound world and feel its existence in time. By the time we got to the actual concert, I was happy enough with the piece from a compositional point of view that I could simply enjoy the performance in all its glory. And what a fabulous performance it was! A big thank you to Paul Dwyer for bringing the piece to life in such an intense way.

Through this whole week it was also fascinating to watch the other pieces take shape. An instant favourite of mine was Edmund FinnisRelative Colour for string septet. He split the ensemble into two trios with the double bass acting as a kind of mirror line between them. It was one of those pieces, which made me think, “Damn! I wish I wrote that!” The subtle, low bass notes emerging beneath the high shimmer of the trios were earth shattering.

Edmund Finnis conducting his "Relative Colour" during the dress rehearsal. Performers from left to right: Aisha Orazbayeva, Anna Pelczer, Mira Luxion, Tony Flynt, Paul Dwyer, Emily Deans, Sarah Saviet

A piece that was a total surprise was Chris WilliamsSan-Shih-Fan for cello and double bass. What first started out as a collection of cool but seemingly unrelated sounds, slowly morphed into a cohesive and very satisfying musical whole. The dynamic between the performers (Paul Dwyer and Tony Flynt) was delightfully playful, and made me wonder how the piece would look and sound if performed by two women, or a mix. The other pieces also came together very nicely through everyone’s hard work and passion. I feel lucky to have met so many talented and dedicated musicians and sincerely hope that our paths will cross again.

I am now safely stowed away in my little cubbyhole in Halifax, trying to process everything that’s happened and getting ready to dive into the chamber orchestra piece for NAC’s Composers Program. It will be a while before I can top Carnegie Hall, but this Ottawa workshop is a great experience to look forward to.

with Kaija Saariaho and Anssi Karttunen after the concert

Carnegie Hall Workshop: D-day

I’m sitting in Zankel Hall watching the dress rehearsals for tonight’s big show. I am nervously excited. The countless small surgeries were successful and  The Child is now standing confidently on its feet. Paul Dwyer sounds truly amazing. I can’t say that enough. He has really made my piece his own, in his particular quiet and mysterious way. It has come to life in his hands.

My only task now is to get into a zen state of mind and enjoy the performance in all its totality without analyzing and second guessing myself.

I still can’t believe this is happening.

Carnegie Hall Workshop: Day 6

Over the last few days we have been talking a great deal with Kaija about building your own hierarchy of musical parameters and prioritizing. What is the most important idea to express in this piece? Which parameters can enhance it? Which will muffle it or destroy it? Where must you hold your ground when it comes to the performance and where can you give way in the name of that one most important thing?

After hearing The Child come together over the course of several days and getting more familiar with the material and the different sections, I started to feel like the piece was dragging somewhat. Certain elements, which were borrowed from other sections, began to seem foreign and unnecessary in their new environment. Still lacking enough confidence to trust my intuition, I really appreciated Kaija confirming it to me in her quiet way. Almost as soon as she said it, I knew instantly which bits to cut and which to alter slightly. It felt like surgically removing cancerous growths to make the body more like its true self.

In the past I had more of a tendency to compose from the first bar to the last, which often resulted in music that changed constantly. In an effort to avoid this in The Child, I felt compelled to bring certain elements back almost obsessively. All it did was burden the totality of the piece, which was already unified by my unconscious intention. But to hear that, I really needed to get to know the sound of the piece. Some elements looked perfectly fine on paper. The notes and transitions worked. It was their sound and intention that didn’t.

The last few days at this workshop have been putting me in a strange frame of mind. Hearing so much string music in such an intimate setting has made me want to hide away somewhere and descend into a very small, dark place within myself. Watching Anssi coaching the players and hearing his performer’s take on the music has added to that enormously. The breathing and sighing… the scratching of the horsehair on the string… the fragile harmonics…These are the musical parameters I want to explore. Even thinking about the 12-part piece I have to write next week seems much too loud in this place of mind.

When introducing her Nocturne for solo violin at Friday’s string master class, Kaija said something that shook me to the core. This piece was written in memory of Lutoslawski. Kaija said that when writing it, she was thinking about his life, and life in general…and the fragile harmonic, which must after all come to an end.

Carnegie Hall Workshop: Day 3

Today was weird. The twenty or so auditors descended upon us like a tsunami. Carroll Studios (where everything takes place) feel a lot more crammed now. On top of that, there was a full camera crew: two camera men, a guy with one of those microphones-on-a-stick, a recording technician, clip on microphones…all that was missing was a confessional booth where participants could unleash the full force of their suppressed artistic anxiety.

Amidst the chaos I got a private half hour with Kaija. We talked about The Child and whether it was succeeding as a piece of music independently of its very programmatic structure. We also discussed some strategies I could use to learn to feel time better, which is something I struggle with constantly. Kaija is very honest in a matter-of-fact kind of way, but also very kind and encouraging. She does not judge. She simply says it how it is while still being very sensitive to one’s artistic concerns.

Over lunch there was a really interesting question-and-answer session with Anssi and Kaija focused mostly on the collaborative relationship between composers and performers. It was fascinating to hear it from both perspectives. In the end it seems to come down to two simple things: trust and the absence of ego. Only in that space can honest and mutually satisfying music-making flourish.

Carnegie Hall Workshop: Day 1

Last night, after a few hours wandering around mid-town New York and getting attacked by a Starbucks tea, which left a nasty red burn on my left hand, I got to hear a full concert of Kaija Saariaho’s music for voice and electronics. The program spanned 20 years of her output, and featured a fantastic French vocal ensemble Solistes XXI, along with video projection by Jean-Baptiste Barrière. All I can say is – magnifique!

I hung around after the concert, looking like an overexcited stalker, trying to squeeze my way through the adoring crowd to the great composer herself. My breathless “Hello-I’m-Anna-Pidgorna-I’m-participating-in-your-workshop” was greeted with a cool, Nordic, “Good. Thank you for coming. I will see you tomorrow.” And that is how I met Kaija Saariaho.

This morning I got to meet all the other Carnegie Hall workshop participants: five other composers and seven string players. We spent the whole day with Kaija and her long time collaborator, the cellist Anssi Karttunen. The string players bravely worked their way through the new pieces while the composers sweated and twitched anxiously over their scores suppressing minor heart attacks. Bravo to the outstanding players! I feel very lucky to have a whole week to absorb their heavenly sound. Kaija’s and Anssi’s questions and suggestions were just the right mix of artistic considerations and practical reality.

After all the read-throughs, the composers had a great coaching session with Kaija to discuss any problems in need of immediate treatment. Having calmed their battered nerves with beer, everyone is now cooped up in their rooms tearing their hair and trying to figure out how to write out their accelerandi or revolutionize formal structure.

the “Fermata Box” in The Child

I got off pretty easy overall. I mostly have to think about tempo and durations. I can’t seem to find a good way of handling those. After a few attempts at precision resulted in ridiculous tempo changes every two measures, I seem to have given up on tempo markings altogether. “Fermata boxes,” my own invention, also absolve me of the responsibility to settle on any sort of duration. It’s all done in the name of liberating the performer. But now I’m wondering: where do you draw the line between liberty and laziness?


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