Dirty legato and musical parenting

I’ve been in beautiful Ottawa since Friday afternoon. After three intense days with the NAC Composers Program, I am enjoying a semi-day off. I have an interview with the CBC Radio 1 this afternoon (tune in around 4:45 EST). I also did an interview for the NAC blog earlier. You can check it out here in English or en français.

The last three days have been very emotionally conflicted. We spend our mornings in readthroughs and rehearsals, and in the afternoon the composers hide away in a little hot cave in the dungeons of the NAC to discuss matters great and small. Our mentors are Gary Kulesha and Chen Yi. Gary tends to be very provocative and blunt, while Chen Yi is always laughing and gesticulating excitedly. It’s a very contradictory dynamic.

There is a very talented bunch of young composers gathered here with different issues and strengths. Some pieces are very colourful and energetic, full of shimmering and juicy orchestration. In sharp contrast to that, there’s a piece that explores the idea of urban blight and the stark, decaying landscapes it generates. My piece seems to be a mishmash of earworms, which were plaguing people for hours yesterday. I’m also responsible for a new musical term – dirty legato.

We get to work with a dedicated ensemble drawn from the Orchestre de la francophonie conducted by Jean-Philippe Tremblay. The musicians are great, eager to make things work and try new things. They ask lots of questions and offer suggestions. Jean-Philippe jokes around all the time producing a welcome calming effect. They are playing new music from 10:30 to 4:30 every day. It’s quite a physical and intellectual marathon.

I was very depressed after the first two rehearsals, through no fault of the musicians. I am apparently not very good at communicating my intentions through the score. My markings are too classical and when executed with the precision with which performers tend to approach contemporary music, things just sound flat and shapeless.

After spending two days wallowing in self pity and berating myself for writing and awful piece, I decided to kick it into shape. I was a lot more vocal in the last rehearsal and tried to explain what kind of sound I was going for. That’s how we ended up with dirty legato. I really needed them to play more harshly and aggressively with more glissando and bow pressure, less like Mozart and more like Ukrainian folk singers. We all had a good laugh and it worked. I am really looking forward to the next rehearsal.

I think it can be much easier, emotionally, to simply throw away a creation you are not immediately happy with, to distance yourself from it, to disown it, to forget it ever happened. It’s harder to force yourself to really look at it, accept its faults and figure out how to highlight the strengths. Maybe it’s like being a parent and giving your work unconditional love while still seeing it for what it is. You made it and you are responsible for giving it a fighting chance. I’ll call it musical parenting.

The highlight of the week so far has been a visit from Ana Sokolovic. She spent the day with us yesterday sitting in on rehearsals and joining us for discussion in the afternoon. She talked about her own approach and gave us little private sessions. I love her music and she seems like an amazing teacher, combining very astute critique with a kind of excitement that is extremely encouraging. With some teachers, you come out of this kind of session feeling like you have so much to learn still that it is almost insurmountable and you will never measure up to whatever ideal they set up. Ana has a way of delivering critique that makes you excited about what you are doing and eager to improve.

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