A week in the life of 7R

About the time I was in doctoral school, the common mantra of many musicians was that the audience was quickly disappearing and we had to 'save' classical music.  I didn't understand that; even then, I was surrounded by composers writing interesting, provocative, and beautiful music.  (I guess they were talking about the audience for museum pieces, and I can understand that, because that music, while speaking to us over eras and ages, doesn't describe our world.  The music that does define the world we live in has an audience that, right now, is fueling inspiration of a range and abundance of composition never before heard.)

Look at my weekend: Friday night I conducted John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls and Kaija Saariaho's Oltra mar at Northwestern University - college students performing complex music with technical clarity and emotional force, with a children's chorus (Emily Ellsworth's Anima) bringing their game to the heart-wrenching and virtuosic part John wrote for them.  This opened a new-music conference with over a hundred composers discussing, sharing, and listening, with many more performances - our students in Ted Hearne's Katrina Ballads, world premieres of more choral works by the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble (BCE), our ensemble that is fashioned after The Crossing, enough creative energy for a century of composition. In between all of this, I was reviewing over two hundred applicants for a faculty position in composition - two hundred accomplished, inspired composers!  (How will I ever program all these discoveries?)  And, last night, our friend Claire Chase (whose ICE is a major part of 7R) gave a performance of her Density 2036: Part III (a 22-year commissioning project), in which she did practically everything one can do with a flute short of marrying it. It was amazing and so moving!  Call it what you like - Classical, High Western Art Music, Long Hair, etc - it's not dead; it's very alive, it has an audience, and that audience is excited.  (I'd like to think The Crossing may have had a little hand in this, at least chorally.  But, bearing no quantitative data on that topic, I'll just shut up and be grateful.) 

Turning to 7R (a part of my every day) also reminds me of just how alive our music world is: a world of details and thoughts. While, from the look of this blog, it may seem it's been a quiet week on the 7R front - no composer videos from Latvia, no libretto from Amherst - The Crossing never sleeps. In addition to a hugely productive board meeting (in which new Development Director Ben Harbold was on fire!); forward motion on recording projects with Ted Hearne, John Luther Adams, and Lansing McLoskey; discussions about projects for the 2018-19 season; and all the minutia required of our upcoming concert and recording with Al-Bustan's Takht Ensemble and The Crossing @ Christmas (Yay!); our 7R week was full of production activity.

Production activity = a lot of talk, speculation, and rethinking - some stage plots, a number of long distance phone calls, a lot of quiet thinking time.  My long-time friend Brett Snodgrass and I are developing a means to have supertitles legible in two directions in the Philadelphia Cathedral.  Brett's last project with us - the stunning titles for Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles - showed the brilliant connection of his ear and eye, bringing mood into focus with the words.  But, 7R has a LOT of words - it starts with the libretto of the seven cantatas of Buxtehude's Membra Jesu nostri, and continues with the seven librettos our composers have chosen or developed.  It would be eventually distracting to have the level of graphic detail of that previous project in 7R.  We'll find our way; we're not there.  Lighting designer Jiyoun Chang is a great resource and will execute this fantastically, we know.

This was also the week in which we began to bring the disparate ideas of our seven composers into a manageable whole.  Among the hallmarks of contemporary writing is the widespread use and creative writing for percussion instruments.  So, while we may tell our composers we have 15 players with instruments like flute, sax, violin, adding 'percussion' to that list could mean just about anything to them (i.e., invites chaos).  Fortunately, our team - headed by Project Manager Janet Neukirchner and Production Manager James Reese - has been working on this issue for months and now has a list of 17 instruments to be struck, banged, scratched, shook, or otherwise invited to produce sound and unleash their spirit. (Although, 'instrument' can mean 'category' to a composer - a four-octave marimba, an octave of cow bells, various Thai gongs, tam-tams and brake drums, etc.).  ICE's percussionist Ross Karre has been an invaluable adviser and leader as well. (Who knew you could convince a composer to drop timpani because you can get almost the same effect with smaller, more mobile instruments that would therefore encourage - and not discourage - future performances! Go, Ross!)  Janet and James have a big job - transport, rental, trips to the hardware store.  June 24 will come quickly for them.

The list has some terrific instruments that inspire great anticipation for what is to come. My favorite may be Caroline Shaw's request for 'flower pots.' Perhaps the most exotic is the reco-reco (a Portugese word pronounced heko-heko), a metal instrument shaped either like a small shoebox or a dissected cow bell, with springs stretched across; one scrapes it with different pressure and speed. It's a familiar sound to the Samba percussion combo, but not so to other music.  And, who is writing for that? Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, the composer who wryly said to me when we invited him into 7R, "You do realize you're asking an 82 year-old composer to write a work two years from now!?"  Pelle is as young as any of us; the remainder of his percussion list includes chimes, log drum, and vibraslap. Look that up. Fun. (He dropped the guiro and sandpaper from his original list, though our audience knows Pelle's love of guiro from our performance last summer of his Green, which also included the mighty angklung!) 

The detail in projects like 7R offers a micro-view of just how exciting the current world of composition is; composers take so much care in finding just the right sound to express a given point or find a perfect moment: specifying the exact size of sonagli (like sleigh bells), the type of clay in the flower pot, the tinkle of wind chimes (glass, wood, metal?), or the depth of a rain stick. This is a truly joyful aspect of the process - a production challenge and a technicality that may eventually become an unforgettable moment in music and in time. Thai gongs? Composer David T. Little made us smile with his response, "Everything I write these days seems to need them." In that statement he admits that compositions often have a life of their own, and that a creative artist never really knows what they've created until they step away from it and commit to it being 'finished.'

And, so, we acknowledge that our percussion list won't be complete until David has finished his 7R piece in March.  So be it.  Bless the imagination!  The process continues, the ideas keep coming.  And music, in whatever style(s) or genre(s) you want to call what we do at The Crossing, is alive and thriving.