Heartlands: Rehearsal & Performance
One fascinating aspect of the completed score in rehearsal is that there are a few pieces which look daunting at first but in fact are easy to learn and perform. And there a few pieces that seemed easy at first but are hard to learn. The latter especially among the pieces for solo voice and piano. People seem to be afraid of one or two of these songs, in so far as no one is rushing forward to audition for them. There is still time to cajole people into taking a leap and trying these pieces; nonetheless it provokes some momentary anxiety in a composer who wants to get the best performance possible of his work.
I'm well aware that I "held back" at times from writing music more complex than might have been, that I restrained myself from over-writing and showing off as an artist. I've written before how it's essential in writing songs not to over-write—a tendency many poets fall into when the first begin to write song lyrics. Stephen Sondheim warns against this tendency in his two recently published books of Collected Lyrics, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. One of the chief values of those books is Sondheim's commentaries, wherein he shows you where he succeeded in following his own dictums of clarity and simplicity, and where he failed. That's a lesson I took to my heart at the very beginning of the commission writing process.
The same is also true for writing music. It's always tempting to pull out all the stops and write to the edge of your ability as composer or performer. That's a good thing to do when you're challenging yourself as an artist to grow a little bit more. But when you are commissioned to write music for a specific ensemble, no matter what that ensemble is, you do better to take into account the skills and abilities and needs of the musicians who are going to be performing the work. When I wrote Heartlands, because I knew the Chorus well, I had a pretty clear sense where I could stretch and push them and challenge them, and where it would be counterproductive to do so.
You have to find that dynamic balance where the music is fresh and lively and challenging, and fun to learn and perform, balanced against music that is so difficult no one wants to try it. You want to work along that fine line between their familiar comfort zone, and sometimes get them to stretch a bit. (Years ago, when I was writing three art-songs for a singer and pianist who I knew could perform anything well, I "pulled out all the stops" and really pushed the edges of technique and expression. Yet, since I don't believe in technique for its own sake, but that craft is in service to expression, I wrote musical gestures intended to support the mood of the lyrics. These "Three Songs" were well-received, and I learned an early lesson in finding that balance already discussed.)
I've become aware of this balance again in the rehearsal process, as some people find themselves unwilling to audition for some of the solo songs. I expected that, I just hope people will take the risk and go for it anyway. That's how you grow as a musician, whether you're a singer or pianist or whatever: you take some risks.
That's also how you grow as a person. When I was commissioned to write Heartlands, and I received the commission because I can write music in varying styles and tones and emotions, I knew that this music would be a journey. Not just for me, but for the singers in the Chorus who gave me their stories to make into music. I knew that they would experience hearing their life-stories refracted back to them as art. I hoped that some of them would feel enlivened by seeing their life-stories from a new perspective, and that would open doors. (I am well aware of the possibilities in music performance for healing, therapy, and growth. I have experienced this myself, many times, and I have been told by some listeners that they get that from some of my other music.)
So I've been encouraging singers to go for it, whenever they've come up to me with questions or concerns. I've told some individual singers privately that I'm glad to see them stretching themselves. And I've been open about my hopes for the overall performance, premiere, and continued life of this large new choral work that I've written. Hopes, not expectations—I've been very clear to make that distinction. I have very high hopes for the long haul for this music; this entire composition and rehearsal period has been one of the most positive things in my life.
While I "held back" at times in the large choral movements, knowing that what I wanted to write should be easy to learn, and memorize, and integrate into one's performance, I also "let myself go" in some of the solo voice and piano movements. I didn't write anything so "modern" that it would be too hard to learn, given the length of the rehearsal period, but I did know where and how I wanted to stretch the performers, to challenge them to a higher level of performance, that I knew they could achieve even if they do not. I reserved some of the more difficult piano writing for these moments in the overall score. Where you find some pianistic writing that is outside the box, where the piano part becomes more than accompaniment and takes on a role as equal, that's where you'll find some of these moments intended to encourage everyone to push themselves a little bit further, a little bit outside their comfort zones. I hope to hear eventually from some performers that those moments where they were being asked to step outside their comfort zones were, in the end, moments of revelation. And I have already received a few comments along those lines.
Remember, music is written not only for the audience, but for the performers. I want the singers to have fun, and to immerse themselves fully in the experience of performing a large-scale, sometimes challenging choral work. Nothing has pleased me more than when a singer has come up to me after rehearsal and told me how much they liked a moment, or a whole piece.
For Heartlands I have intentionally written pieces that are purely lush and beautiful harmonies, because that style suits the mood of the text. (In the end, its all about matching the mood of the words and music as closely as possible.) I have intentionally written pieces that are more edgy, at times openly angry, with more aggressive harmonic styles. I have written pieces that are more traditional forms, dance forms, folk song forms, inspirational ballads. And I have written pieces that are more contemporary, more "modern" in style and execution. (Also, where I've written the more contemporary styles, I've given lots of musical cues to the singers from the piano and from the other voice parts, so that the alert singer will never get lost.)
People think writing music for me ought to be easy—and on one level it is. It can be very easy to come up with an idea, or to find inspiration where I need it; and I have some facility as an improvising musician. I remember what jazz legend Lester Bowie said once about music: he said he has a permanent 24-hour soundtrack always playing in the back of his mind, a ribbon of music that is playing the entire time he is awake; he said that when he played, composed or improvised, all he had to do was dip into his permanent back-of-the-mind soundtrack, and bring that music forward into audibility, so that others could hear it, too. I experience improvising and composing music this way, myself. I think it's one reason that, unlike many other classically-trained musicians, I have no fear of improvisation; I have faith the music will always be there. I can always write music, whether notated or spontaneous, because what I do is a lot like Lester Bowie described for his own process.
Yet it takes time to write music down, to notate a score, to fill in all the edges, then to go back over the score and adjust it where necessary. I'm discovering that writing a song takes less time than to write, for example, a multi-movement solo piano work, but it still takes time. It took me ten months to write Heartlands, actually only nine months if you recall that I lost a month in the middle of the commission period to surgery and recovery.
What this means is that writing music is both easy and hard, it is as natural as breathing yet it also requires a lot of effort. And the same is true for performing music: It's as natural as breathing, and can require a lot of effort.
When I was sitting at my writing desk, notating the final pencil scores of Heartlands, I thought about this a lot. It was not separate from my awareness at all times of the level of difficulty of performance I was demanding from the singers. I was aware throughout the writing process of my desire to push the singers a little bit past their comfort zones—but not too far. I was aware all the time of how to both write an interesting line, and how to make it singable without being harder than was really necessary.
As a performer, who will be singing with the Chorus for the premiere of Heartlands, I find myself this week at that stage in my own memorization process where some of the music is playing in my head all the time, as the dominant element of my permanent 24-hour internal soundtrack. Hearing the music that I'm learning play in my mind is a familiar and welcome stage of the process of learning music for me, one I've relied on for decades. When I hear the music playing in my head all the time, like now, that means it's sinking in and I'm partially into the process of memorization. I'm a very visual person, so one way that I memorize music scores is to memorize them as visual pages; there are times when I actually read the printed page in my mind's eye during performance. Having the music play in my head, and singing along with it in my mind, is by contrast an aural memorization process. For best results I synergize the visual and aural memory/learning processes.
I know I have a piece thoroughly memorized when the visual and aural channels begin to merge with the kinesthetic channel, and I begin to feel a piece of music in my guts, in my bones, in my very blood chemistry. It goes into my muscle memory, which is a far deeper memory than the merely intellectual. When I have learned a piece of music that thoroughly, I never forget it. I might not come back and play a piece learned this way for many years, but it's still in there, and I don't need more than a glance at the score to get it back in my functional memory. I've learned over the years to rely on muscle memory for this, as well: the body remembers the sensations on all levels of detail that making this music require one to feel inside one's own flesh. Even when the mind goes blank, the body remembers.