Friday, November 21, 2008

It's About Time

To be precise, two years since I’ve written here, an unfortunate confluence of perfectionism, overcommitment, medical emergency, political angst, and writer’s block. John Zorn pulled me out of the latter to write a piece for his latest issue of Arcana. Perhaps I’ll post that essay at a later date; you can check out the beautifully published volume, with writings by Chrisian Marclay, Sean Lennon, Gavin Bryars, Brad Lubman, William Parker, Wadada Leo Smith, Olga Neuwirth, Laeticia Sonami, and many others, here. Through these two years I have been sketching ideas, and hopefully some will come to fruition over the next few months. In the meantime, a reminiscence about my trip to China last year.


“Be prepared for something unforeseen to happen,” a Chinese musician-friend had cautioned me, with a smirk. And so it was with a bemused sense of trepidation that I embarked on my trip to the Beijing Modern Music Festival last May to perform my clarinet concerto Voices. I had been invited by Ye Xiao-gang, director of the festival, at the behest of my colleague Chen Yi. Prior to my departure from the U.S., in response to a frantic request from the orchestra management, I had hastily packed several items – castanets, a wa-wa mute, and a flexatone – lent to me by generous acquaintances. Several of the instruments in my score were not commonly owned, or even known, by smaller Chinese orchestras.

After ten hours spent at Newark Airport, including two flight cancellations, I finally boarded the plane and arrived in Beijing at 1AM, only to have my bankcard rudely swallowed by the local ATM. A driver arrived to transport me to Tianjin, a city located about two hours away from the capital. The midnight trip was a grey, polluted blur. My mind was enveloped in a groggy fog after two half-days of travel, and a steady stream of industrial, covered trucks – delivering goods from the ports of the China Sea to Beijing – clogged the highway, belching soot. Bland billboards loomed from the roadside and a busy whirr of construction persisted through the night.

Following a 4am check-in at the hotel, I collapsed into deep, two-hour sleep and was awoken for breakfast. Walking into the 9am rehearsal, I conjured some Zen, expecting a number of ‘issues’ to surface. “A great deal will depend on the conductor,” my friend had warned. “You’ll need someone who understands American rhythms.”

The young, energetic conductor Yang Li greeted me upon my arrival. To my surprise, he spoke English quite well. “I’m glad you are here!” he said excitedly. “We have already been rehearsing for several days!” I learned that he was the son of the famous choral conductor Yang Hongnian whose China Children’s Choir was world-renowned for their skill; training together from a tender age, the singers remained with the group throughout their teenage years, often into their twenties. Yang Li had studied conducting in Stuttgart, and German words were sprinkled throughout his animated conversation. “Do not worry if the orchestra sounds imperfect,” he assured me with a wink. “They are still getting used to your jazzy flavor. We will concentrate on your piece all day today and tomorrow.”

The first reading of my concerto was quite rough; many of the difficult wind passages seemed downright shaky, and huge swaths of the music were missing. But the string section held their own, and the principal winds attacked their parts in a determined – if occasionally stiff – manner. Yang Li spoke encouragingly to the orchestra, then turned to me and pointed at his score. “This is the hardest part,” he announced gravely. “Where you write ‘Bebop.’ They’re not getting the rhythm accurately. Go over there and play it with them.” He urged me toward the woodwind section.

All eyes were on me. I hesitated. It seemed somehow presumptuous to step into their space; as the soloist, I would be crossing an invisible boundary. Yang Li persisted, “You must show them how to play the first movement. Much better than if I do it! You are American; this is your music.” So I stepped in front of the woodwinds and executed a blindingly fast two-bar passage of 64th notes. The whole orchestra immediately burst into applause.

Please,” he entreated, ignoring the clapping. “Once more.”

“OK…” I said, moving back toward my normal spot.

“No, stay where you are,” he gestured. “In the orchestra. Play with them, in the section!”

So I stood next to the principal clarinet player and we all played together. It sounded pretty awful.

“Play it again,” Yang Li said. We did.

“Again.” We repeated it.


Steadily, almost imperceptibly, the two-bar phrase solidified.

“Now Derek, play it slowly, very slowly.” I did it, stressing the non-‘ghost’ notes.

He spoke to the orchestra in Mandarin. “I explain to them what you are doing. How you emphasize some notes and swallow others. Play again.” I did, exaggerating the syncopation.

He barked a command to the orchestra, then turned to me. “Now we all play in the slower tempo.” Remarkably, the entire wind section eked out a slightly clumsy but discernable swing.

“Again!” he hollered. They played.

“Now a little faster...” Yang Li was no longer conducting, but allowing me to lead from my post, standing in front of the wind section.

“Again,” he insisted, with a tiny smirk. And so it went, for at least an hour, Yang Li breaking down the movement into small phrases and imploring me to demonstrate.

During a moment of inspiration, I unearthed a potent metaphor for describing to the musicians my swooping, gliding musical rhetoric: Peking Opera. It seemed like an apt touchstone with which to cross the cultural divide; Peking Opera prominently features exaggerated vocal gestures via high soprano and falsetto singers, deliberately caricaturizing speech for dramatic purposes. Yang Li appreciated the stylistic analogy and echoed it repeatedly when explaining my piece to the orchestra; we had found our Rosetta Stone.

In this way, the musicians slowly grew comfortable with the gestural language of my work. The evolution was especially palpable during the breaks; the principal cellist winked slyly as he bowed glissandi imitating slides and groans, the first clarinet player parroted my licks, the trombonists practiced funky inflections, fall-offs, and ‘doits’, the trumpeters rehearsed syncopations and ‘ghost’ notes, and the hornists perfected their rips. During the second movement – which is based on an Irish folk song – the concertmaster riffed on a fiddle lick and the piccolo player painstakingly deconstructed the 'keening' grace notes in her solo, a low, melancholy echo of the clarinet melody. After much practice, the pianist was able to create a subtle, resonant thump with a soft mallet on the strings, and the harpist achieved a sultry portamento pedaling. I had been worried about whether the bass guitar player would possess any knowledge of slap techniques, but to my delight, he turned out to be a virtuoso; he gigged regularly in a Tianjin funk band and, though never having played electric bass with an orchestra, he quickly learned to negotiate the complex task of following a conductor while grooving with the rhythm section.

Given their lack of resources, the percussionists were particularly noteworthy in their dedication to realizing my orchestrational nuances. Lacking an extra drumhead available for puncture, they set about searching for creative solutions to simulate a ‘lion’s roar’ using timpani. Two squeaky rubber ‘Hello Kitty’ toys were ingeniously substituted for a cuica. A makeshift vibraslap was constructed for the final bars of the slow movement. The drum set player memorized a lengthy 7/8 funk groove so that he could more easily watch the conductor. And the entire section teamed up to find a tub deep enough to immerse a large gong in water, auditioning three or four containers before a vessel of appropriate size was located.

By the end of the first afternoon we had already rehearsed for double the amount of time that an equivalent new piece would have received with a Western orchestra. It was a long working day for the musicians: 9am-5pm, punctuated by a few half-hour breaks, during which they practiced, smoked, or played ping-pong. By concert time the following evening, we had clocked three days of rehearsal on my concerto alone (three other contemporary works were also featured on the program: by Ching Wen Chen, Zhang Lida, and Jing Xiang). Yang Li appeared thoughtful. "Voices will be pretty good tonight in Tianjin,” he mused, “but it will improve greatly by the time we perform in Beijing, because we will rehearse in-between the concerts too.” He smiled impishly. “They don’t do that in the West.”

What drove the relaxed, devoted, and optimistic atmosphere that permeated the rehearsal process? Part of it was Yang Li’s disarmingly casual, yet focused, manner; but the copious time allotted for the musicians to familiarize themselves with my compositional language was undoubtedly a vital factor. In the States it is rare to receive more than two or three rehearsals to hone a contemporary piece (and the scenario is often even more hectic when playing standard repertoire; I’ve performed the Mozart – and even the Copland – concerto without a full dress rehearsal). In most of Europe the situation is not much better; in England it is probably worse. By contrast, in Tianjin the generous amount of rehearsal time allowed a chamber music sensibility to prevail. Rather than relying on sight-reading chops, the players melded together into an ensemble, internalizing my musical gestures on a vastly more intimate level. I gazed with admiration at these dedicated musicians, earning less money for a week of work than most Western orchestral players make at one rehearsal.

I recall reading about the tumultuous history of Aaron Copland’s Short Symphony. Deemed unplayable – and subsequently abandoned – by Stokowski in Philadelphia and by Koussevitsky in Boston, the work had to wait for its premiere until Chavez's orchestra in Mexico City allotted ten rehearsals. It wasn’t performed in the States for another decade. Imagine the possibilities were a bold commitment undertaken today by major Western orchestras to prepare, perform, and record challenging and unorthodox new works. Yes, it would require time. And time - in the West - is often equated with money. But the rewards would be priceless, and timeless.