RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Honourable Second

img  Tobias Fischer

Raymond Yiu is beaming with satisfaction. Not only did his song cycle "The Earth and Every Common Sight" recently receive its first public performance. But it was also part of the program at the 20th-Century British Poets in Music Festival and will now, barely two weeks later, be given another rendition at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama – with different musicians each time. Meanwhile, "Elegiac Fragments", a piece for solo violin, is already close to its tenth concert appearance within a mere two years. Clearly, Yiu has every reason to be optimistic about not just his own career, but also about the fate of contemporary composition in general. And yet, he is well aware of the fact that, in the bigger picture, his success in securing repeat performances is an exception. "Here’s a headline we will never see: Choral Arts Society Announces Second-Ever Performance of New Composition.", Don Lee of Chorus America once joked, well aware of the pervasive dilemma for many composers: "For them, the exaggeration rings all too true. They commonly complain that the second performance is much harder to come by than the first. “I hear it all the time from composers,” says John Nuechterlein, president and CEO of the American Composers Forum, “Most composers find premieres to be more possible than second performances because everyone wants the glory of a first performance."

The Diminished Cachet Hypothesis
According to Lee, the reason for the gradual decline in second performances is what he calls 'diminished cashet': In a world over-saturated with content of any kind, only a premiere offers the necessary once-in-a-lifetime experience and 'hook' required to sell an already marginalised product like contemporary composition. Clarinetist Rachel Yoder has gone so far as to call this tendency 'premiere hunting', and chastised it as "a road that, paradoxically, can be stifling for new music and composers themselves." As if to confirm these suspicions, a handful of initiatives dedicated to repeat performances have sprung up, including the Second Glance Festival of New Music, dedicated to "new works that have been neglected for whatever reason, without compromise or affiliation", turning the second interpretation of a piece into a marketable phenomenon in its own right. Chorus America in turn set up a database of works which had received a premiere and were deemed, by an expert panel, deserving of continued attention. Of course, all of these activities have hardly made the task of having one's work performed more than once any easier – the Second Glance Festival already faltered in 2007 after its, somewhat ironically, second edition.

In a heavily debated article for Gramophone Magazine, James McCarthy was unwilling to accept diminished cachet as the prime reason for the notable absence of repeat performances. Reporting on a panel discussion moderated by composer Julian Anderson, he claimed, somewhat acidically, that "if there had been any members of the concert-going public present yesterday, they would have been able to point out the obvious solution to this problem, a solution that is absolutely blinding to those outside the members’ club of academic composers: if you write music that people actually want to hear then they will come and hear it." McCarthy cited successful artists like Steve Reich, John Adams, Sir John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, Thomas Adès or Mark-Anthony Turnage as examples for composers who had managed to develop a style which was instantly accessible to the public and to write pieces which literally begged to be played again and again. It was perfectly fine to come up with complex music and remain within the framework of academia, where radical experiments in performance technique might be considered seminal contributions. And yet, one should never expect the general public to actually appreciate them. His advice was to take the audience into consideration when writing – or to at least accept that they might not respond favourably otherwise: "I am not saying that any composer should write a particular type of music, employ a certain musical language, or approach their art in any way that doesn’t feel entirely honest. My point is simply that if you write music of a certain type (and it is a very certain type), music that in the language it employs is inherently designed to impress a small community of contemporary music aficionados, then you should enter into that with your eyes open, and don’t be surprised if nobody in the wider world wants to hear it. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t expect orchestras, who rely on ticket sales to stay alive, to foot the bill."

Expanding Composition
McCarthy's comments did not meet with a lot of agreement, mainly, it seems,  because he seemed to have misunderstood Julian Anderson's intent for the discussion, which was by no means to force the Avant-garde down the throats of helpless laymen, but to analyse why so much wonderful music keeps being relegated to the archives so quickly. And yet, they are not entirely beside the point. As Raymond Yiu points out, the process of composing is about a lot more than just writing beautiful music. With a background in IT, his approach is to consider each new work as a unique challenge, including questions of who might be interested in playing it, how to secure a premiere and how to make it interesting enough for repeat performances. If a piece could only be performed once or not at all, he says, he would probably not write it in the first place. As such, many of his suggestions are highly practical: "The money involved in putting on a performance in the professional world is an important factor. My observation is that the smaller the number of players involved, the more likely a piece is going to be chosen. In the same way, the instrumentation is often a factor in getting repeat performances, with the simple fact that there are more string trios in the world than a mixed ensemble of, say, a flute, clarinet, violin, guitar, percussion and piano." Closely related to this approach is to use transcriptions or slight revisions of original pieces to broaden the potential base of interested musicians and to create new premiere events with the same musical material: A recent transcription of Dobrinka Tabakova's "Frozen River Flows" (originally for percussion and oboe) for violin, accordion and double bass was greeted with enthusiasm, while Johanna Doderer included some minor changes and an introduction to a piece performed by Turkish pianist Seda Röder for the latter's Black and White Statements program. 

These examples already indicate that successful repeat performances depend vitally on the relationship between the composer and the performers. For someone like Rachel Yoder, the interaction between the two sides should never be a top-down process. Instead, she stresses the importance of truly collaborating at eye level: "I’ve seen performers hold a call for scores for a specific instrumental combination, and demand that the works have never been performed before. This seems really egotistical to me. You’re expecting a serious composer to take many hours of their life to write a new piece for free, specifically for your group, without actually being able to contact or work with you during its creation, and with no guarantee that it will even be chosen for performance? If you really want a premiere so bad, find a composer you like and commission them. These days, composers are so hard up that sometimes you can call it a “commission” even if you don’t pay them! It makes it sound like money changed hands though, so you and the composer both sound prestigious. It’s a win-win. By commissioning a composer, you have the opportunity to collaborate, and collaboration is really the most exciting part about a premiere anyway. By working directly with a composer, you have the opportunity to influence the actual music." Not all instrumentalists are capable of handling this new responsibility, as Belinda Reyonolds noted in an article for New Music Box about 'getting it rigth the second time', in which she mentioned how her requests for feedback were met with anything from terror and stupefaction to contempt. Neither are all composers, who will have to deal with a situation where what used to be a pure solo effort suddenly turns into a group endeavour. And yet, in terms of arriving at results attractive enough for many generations of musicians, the approach seems promising.

Works with Legs
If done well, Yoder claims, second performances can be even more important and honourable than premieres. After all, what could be more exciting to a composer than understanding that his work, as Yoder puts it, 'has legs'? When she and her ensemble recorded their CD Five at Play, they both consciously and intuitively went for pieces which were fun to play and inspiring to others - merely on the strength of word of mouth, other formations immediately voiced their interest in some of these pieces. Her arguments may sound idealistic, but they're pragmatical as well: "If you have the choice between premiering a work that might be second-rate, or programming a piece that wasn’t written for you but may well be one of the better works from its decade, consider not just your legacy but the legacy of the music itself in making that decision. Are you recycling someone else’s leftovers by being the “second performer”? Far from it. You are taking a leadership role in the formation of a canon."

One thing all composers appear to be agree on is that trying to secure repeat performances for their work by means of recordings is not an equitable alternative. Tabakova, in a recent interview I did with her, referred to albums as 'frozen concerts' and emphasised that, to her, they were mostly interesting in terms of appreciating music prior to or after an inspiring live rendition. Yiu agrees: "Recordings help me to expand my knowledge on music as there are far too many interesting pieces out there which I know I will never get a chance to hear live. But if I can, live performances are always my first choice. Recordings are for archives, references and ‘quick fixes’". Then he needs to leave – another second performance is waiting.

By Tobias Fischer
Image by Eckhard Pecher

Homepage: Raymond Yiu