Archive for February, 2012


Friday, February 17th, 2012

At the ripe old age of 37, I’m starting to feel like a “real” composer/arranger.  After 20 years of doing it for fun, and 10 in the service of “l’Oncle d’Sucre”, I’ve learnt a funny thing or 2 about my little corner of the musical macrocosm.

One is that a first reading of any chart, composition, whathaveyou is no more or less painful the 1st time as it is the 101st time it happens.  I equate it to standing trouser-less in front of 60-100 strangers doing a still-life sketch of your genitals, complete with commentary on size, shape and usefulness, which are then read aloud.

Initially, the feeling is borne of the usual dreads: the wrong notes, the missing repeat signs, anything that you might have forgotten or unintentionally omitted, a part in the wrong transposition, etc., all attributal to the common human failings like fatigue, boredom, drunkeness, etc.  Then are the arranger/orchestrator things, like voicings, colors, etc.; there are always at least a dozen things every arranger/composer would like to change, but that’s reigned in by something called a “deadline”.  The third level of “I feel like I want to puke” hell comes from the players, and the unavoidable element of human error.  Wrong notes in a first reading are an inevitability – we’re all human beings after all, and though conscientious players are good about owning up to it, mistakes stop a rehearsal and trigger that “oh geez, what did I do???” reflex in the arranger, sort of like a fight-or-flight response.  One wrong note breeds others, and all of a sudden 4 more hands shoot up, usually over things as wildly dissonant as minor 7ths (mercy me!).  It just sucks.

I’ve come to realize something that I imagine many composers must have realized in their day, and that is this: a “perfect” performance or rendition of your carefully-crafted work is a rarity; savour it when it happens, but don’t expect it.  Think about any tried-and true piece from the musical canon, something like Handel’s “Messiah”, or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”.  Think about the “best” performance or recording you know of, out of how many?  Now think of any amateur assemblage of musicians’ rendition of the same, and magnify that by the number of venues and groups around the world throughout time.  I imagine performances ranging from good to hilariously bad to ugly and all points in between.  If your wish is to write music that has any mass appeal (which will result in commissions, sales, royalties and eventually FOOD), this is something you’re going to eventually become acquainted with.

Back when I was a burgeoning composer, I started out in that kind of “crazy perfectionist” mindset, where a missed note or crescendo, or playing out of tune was tantamount to a personal insult, the words “I COULDN’T HAVE MADE IT ANY BLOODY CLEARER YOU SMALL-MINDED IMBECI^%#!” emblazoned across my face.  Getting personally offended by a missed note or two, however, is a fastlane to insanity or other disquieting stress-related maladies, especially if they’re YOUR fault (which face it-I’m the composer, of course the notes are right).

The remedy came in further study, becoming clearer in my notation and compositional technique, and adopting a more laissez-faire attitude about performances. Over time I developed something of a defense mechanism against this, and it comes in the form of a certain degree of detatchment.  I wouldn’t call it “apathy”, but I come to a state of “fine-ness”. Barring a complete trainwreck, I’m usually fine with how it sounds.  Face it – to the last person from the NY Phil down to the pee-wee beginner string ensemble, everyone tries their best, and they take pride in what they create, just like I do.  Give it a chance.