Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bill Bolcom: at least you have a piece

The cancellation of a performance is a difficult pill for a composer to swallow, especially at a time in his/her life when opportunities may be few. During my student days at the University of Michigan, a singer once cancelled my premiere at the last minute. Disappointed, and feeling powerless and depressed, I showed up at Bill Bolcom's office for a lesson and related how bummed out I was. "Well, at least you have a piece!" he shrugged. "That's the important thing." I walked out of his office feeling miserable. 'He just doesn't understand!" I fumed. But of course he did understand. It has happened to Bill as it happened to me that day as it shall happen to all composers, for all eternity.

It can be seductive, even comforting, to recast the premiere - as opposed to the writing of the piece - as the milestone event. After all, hearing a work one has written for the first time is a significant occasion. And the giving of place and time to a work's utterance, the publicity, and the press attention, can all add gravity and tension to the moment of realization. But -- perhaps especially because I am a chronic reviser -- I consider premieres overrated. The birth of the piece ought to be celebrated most by the composer, with all that follows being secondary -- maybe a close secondary, but still secondary. For it is the act of creation where the transformative magic first happens, and neither glitz nor glamour can usurp its place. And after the premiere, and the post-premiere party, and the various other performances, reviews, and perhaps recordings it might or might not receive, what inevitably remains is - the piece. And noone other than future performers or audiences who decide that a piece is worth their time, can grant that work a 'life' of its own.

Bill, in his infinite (or perhaps finite, but substantial) wisdom, awakened in me a feeling of gratitude for having been the vessel for the creation of a work of art, an act of great spiritual power. Perhaps the possibility to revise is still a greater power. But that's a topic for another day....