Every time a piece of music I write is played, it hurts. It hurts on the level of raw, untrammeled, and possibly vain phobia: Will they like it? Will they like me? Will anyone ever like me? It hurts on the level of lost time, the amount of hours spent making the thing seems so vast and the minutes spent listening to the thing seem scant; it hurts on the sheer canonic level of “Last In/First Out” in that as the newest entry in a longstanding and well-extant canon—the Great Western Canon of Classical Music—you are, for those moments your work is being played, the newest and therefore the least established and therefore the most expendable entry into that daunting powerful play. It never fails to hurt.
Flashback to the gossamer beginning of the collaboration between Lara Downes and myself: She initially proposes I make a piece based on West Side Story, a free-flowing fantasia on its themes (musical and conceptual) to abet her smart idea of doing a Romeo and Juliet-themed concert. I agree with enthusiasm, but later in queries the rights would be unobtainable as Mr. Bernstein’s estate is understandably protective of this cherished property. Flash forward, I’ve completed Mad Love, a seven-minute excursion for solo piano which stretches further than Lara’s original idea to bursting by dint of the fact that it quotes dozens of songs (of the literally thousands extant) focusing on the shall we say less pleasant side of love.
As someone who came up as a student in the 1990s, I like the distinctly Richard Rorty-ish postmodern idea where high- and low-culture notions bash against one another, and where a capacity to clock and catalogue the references (on whose vastness I congratulate myself because they run from Schöneberg, to Puccini, to Nine Inch Nails, to Prokofiev, to Elvis Costello, to Tori Amos) will of course deepen a listener’s enjoyment, but one can, ostensibly, do without them.
I am a deep admirer of the work and overall personae of Peter Greenaway, who, in person, answered my one query, “How do you feel about audiences not following each of your references?” with the predictable, “Those who get it, will get it” reply. I don’t make movies and I am nowhere near as intelligent, or provocative, or all-encompassing, or knowledgeable as he (but, Jesus Christ, who is?), but I do hope I can carry some modicum of that spirit into this specific stream of my work.
It’s a borrowed gambit, and my collaborator does not feel the same way: She wants a version of the score with annotations, confessions of my often subterranean quotations, even telling the audience in pre-piece remarks of their source, letting them in on the dirty little secret. We disagree, but as with most matters Lara Downes, I cave. And not just to Lara Downes, though she’s certainly a force majeure. But as a composer I think we owe as much accommodation to those who go through the sweat, and panic, and nudity of actually playing the stuff. Not all agree, but it strikes me as common courtesy.
Flash forward again to the night of the show: It is February, and Bargemusic is a concert hall situated on an actual boat that floats on—and therefore bends victim to the pitch and yaw of—the East River. I white knuckle the entire experience, making polite conversation with friends who are there when I’d much prefer to be outside smoking cigarettes, though it is February and I quit ages ago. She played some other music before my piece, and while I am certain it was intelligently chosen—smart stuff beautifully played as is this pianist’s way—I have no recollection. It’s a pre-premiere blur, a zillion screaming notes that disappear despite my easy memory for musical material. This hurts.
Now I cannot, nor can anyone, possibly do justice in prose to the raw, electric quiddity of the moment the new piece begins. Usually a composer is asked to say a few words should they be in the room, which means at least I’ve had a task to which I can devote a bit of mental energy. I talk (I am a decent talker so this never phases me) and then sit, and then at some luminous out-of-body moment the music actually begins. And honestly, every performance sounds a mess—not because of the performer, but in that way that a spectacular reader can at times outline the flaws in the text they are reading, so too can a well-prepared, vivid performance of a piece shed illumination on its most flagrant flaws, from surface blemishes to missed musical chances to, in darker moments, the utter fraud of the composer. If I have heard the work preceding my own in a distant tunnel, I’ve countenanced my own from another loud, angry, self-flagellating plane, like our own place but far, far worse.
At some point the piece lopes to an end, and my listening focuses and sharpens, because I am now a junkie homing in on a fix: There is applause, recognition, adoration, and this I hear in an over-amplified way. Is it enough? How do I bow? Will anyone care? It always seems, regardless of the size of the crowd, to be a sparse, spattered, and desultory noise, this applause (or lack of same). And then, head having flood with adrenaline, the crash comes, which of course renders the rest of the music on the concert a surging musical blob.
Which is all to say, I again spent the evening doing the thing I love most of all—listening to live music brilliantly played without hearing a single note.
Scene: The inevitable post-concert, in which our composer thinks his work was universally loathed.
The “hang” at the local restaurant is chaotic, boozy, and frustrating. I am now running on a mix of depletion and hope (and alcohol) and am extremely sensitive to people’s reactions. And nobody is ever responsive enough. This one is particularly hard—I feel like I’ve written a piece that, being a tessellation of quotations, simply isn’t mine. And my post-concert agita tells me I have made an immoral choice and therefore deceived anyone who took the time to listen. It is, of course, confirmed by the fact that nobody is talking about the piece when all I want them to do is talk about the piece, about me, about how good I am and the thing is.
And they are not, of course, because they have other concerns—chief among them, giving Lara her justified due. But they are also concerned with what is being eaten and drunk, with discussing worldly matters like children, other people, things existing far beyond the orbit of my own myopic pursuits. What, I wonder, does any of this have to do with my music?
Close up, in which the composer is distraught and his beautiful wife enters the bathroom with him for no purposes other than reassuring him.
I want to turn and run—I am convinced I’ve been made, the secret of my fraudulent ways has come to light; I am no artist, no composer, and should just exit gracefully—not just the bar but the profession. I texted my wife Elizabeth, who is a writer, who knows quite a bit about music, and who has sat next to me through so many premieres, and told her I wanted to leave. She found me, and we stepped into the bathroom to have the conversation—not as sordid as it sounds, not even a little, unless you find tales of an artist’s insecurity getting him undone in a bar bathroom sordid, in which case… have at it. As usual, she talked me down. As usual, I returned to the table and, as usual, enjoyed some excellent company—it turned out my piece was better received than I believed. As usual, I went home and, as usual, got up the next day and worked on the next piece.
And so it goes…
I once, years ago, sat next to a colleague at a premiere, and as the lights dimmed I whispered, “Why do I do this to myself?” And yet, I persist. Though every time there is a performance—and there have literally been hundreds—I think this. Every time.