beauty…beholder: the aftermath – part one

The Xavier University Symphonic Winds world premiered beauty…beholder this past weekend.  It was a pretty amazing experience on many different levels both personally and professionally, and there’s a lot of stuff buzzing around in my head about it that i wanted to get it down into a couple of blog entries while it was all still fresh.  The experience splits itself naturally into two parts – first, my experience with the ensemble with some postnotes about the trip in general, and second, the piece itself – my reaction to it, other people’s reaction to it, and my reaction to their reactions.  This entry will address the former.

First, a few words about the ensemble.  There’s a lot of parallels between the Xavier ensemble and the ones i help to run at Tulane.  Most of the kids in the group are not music majors – they wanted to continue playing their instrument because they enjoy playing and want an outlet for it, and Xavier’s ensemble and basketball pep band fill that void (Xavier University doesn’t have a football team, so there’s no marching band).  The subtle differences between the groups fall into apples-and-oranges categories such as “shelter level” (students who go to Tulane far more embrace the New Orleans culture than the students who go to the Jesuit-based Xavier), but otherwise, i could look out at the student body and say to myself things like, “yeah, that’s the Xavier version of X”, X being one of my Tulane kids such as Connor or MJ or Tori.

I had the opportunity to interact with them in four contexts – a rehearsal, a basketball game, the dress rehearsal, and the concert.  During the first rehearsal, i was incredibly nervous as i usually am in front of a new large crowd of people who have an impression of me before meeting me, which translated to me babbling like a madman and talking incredibly fast.  I can’t tell you much about what i said during the first part of that rehearsal, but according to Matt, the students dug what i had to say, so i guess i did all right.  The ensemble impressed me – Matt has done great things with the group during his tenure there and that showed not only in how the kids executed the piece but also how they approached the rehearsal and noticeably improved when i gave them guidance on sections.

That evening I played with the pep band during the basketball game (i alternated between tenors, cymbals, and cowbell (there’s a neat story there, but never mind)).  I’m glad that I went because i felt like i could act much more like myself and relate to the students as Simply Me as opposed to this ‘guest composer celebrity” thing that had made me nervous in the first place at rehearsal.  I can count the number of times i’ve been to a live basketball game on one hand (without sign language) and so was surprised at some of the traditions that seem to be standard for basketball games across the country.  It was fun being very deer-in-headlights about Xavier basketball traditions and being guided enthusiastically by the pep band members about what was going on.  I learned a lot of cheers and other oddities, such as the throwing of newspaper confetti for the first home basket, or the “high-five-as-many-people-as-you-can-around-you-when-they-score-a-three-pointer.”  I lost my voice that day from yelling and cheering so much.

The dress rehearsal and concert was on Friday.  In addition to my piece, the ensemble played “Blue Shades”, as well as a Holst march conducted by one of the students, and a neat piece called “Dusk” conducted by one of the other students.  Additionally, a sax quartet played a few short tunes, and a percussion quartet played Omphallo by Nigel Westlake.  Again, during the dress rehearsal, i got the opportunity to address some big picture musical things and was rewarded by hearing noticeable results when they rehearsed it again, as well as get some giggly responses from a couple of the professional musicians who supplement the ensemble that had no idea that a mobile phone was going to go off during the piece’s climax.  I also had the opportunity during that time to meet one of Matt’s colleagues, a composer and former department chair who couldn’t make it to the concert that evening who was incredibly nice and had a lot of great things to say about the piece and the piece’s message.

Matt and I had talked about saying a few words to the audience before my piece was played.  I was unsure of what i could say without giving the game away, but I did say something to the effect of “the program notes cover most of it, and really what i want this piece to do is to spark a conversation.”  I also gave a very heartfelt thanks and gratitude to Matt and to the ensemble for premiering the work.  Then i sat back down next to Erica and told her she would have to help prevent me from giggling leading up to the climax.

The rest of the concert leading up to my piece was a little rough around the edges.  Nothing terribly noticeable unless you were looking for it, but having been to a rehearsal and dress rehearsal, i knew what the ensemble was capable of and therefore knew that they didn’t quite execute the other pieces to their fullest potential.  I wasn’t too worried when it came to my piece – i knew they would do a great job and would represent the piece well enough even if it had its own sort of rough edges about it.

And boy did the group surprise me.  There were times when i was listening to them perform that i wanted to laugh out loud because of how awesome they were performing.

I remember the feeling of it.  After one very minor rhythmic ambiguity that happened in the beginning, the ensemble kept on nailing it from moment to moment.  The energy was intense – all of the subtle things that makes music Music instead of just notes on the page, i felt them going after it, not even simply because of their musicianship but because of their desire.  They went after it as if they owned it and it was the most precious thing to them, and it was a pretty incredible experience to be swept in and to be a part of.  I remember after the piece finished but before the audience started applauding, i murmured out loud to myself, “they did so awesome.  they did so well.”  When i went up to the stage, before i turned to the audience and to Matt to give bows and thanks, I said to the ensemble directly with what i’m sure was a goofy grin on my face  – “you guys rocked, you guys did awesome,” and i got a lot of smiles and giggles, and it was another moment of great connection, one of the reasons i’m in this profession of music and teaching – there’s something very special about those moments where you truly connect with an ensemble and its individuals.  Those kids had a very positive impact on me, and I’d like to think that i similarly had a positive impact on them.

The impact of the piece is something i’ll save for the second blog entry, but I will say I made enough of a positive impression on the professionals that were a part of the ensemble that they approached me for a commission.  I’ll go into detail about that later as well, but I will say how great that felt – it felt like i had just passed another important stepping stone in my compositional career for a professional quartet to ask me to write a piece for them. It was very gratifying and very humbling at the same time, and something that I know i will forever be thankful to Matt for, because he more than anyone else opened the door.  It was also not one of my greater professional moments necessarily because when they asked me, “how much would you charge?” i think i said, “oh gosh, i don’t know,” but i recovered and told them i would get back to them when i had more time to think about it.

As for the rest of Cincinnati, it was a mixture of relaxation and activity.  Mat and Erica were fairly busy with their own stuff so i had a bunch of down time on my own, but I did have a day where Erica and I hung out and tried a new restaurant, walked from Ohio to Kentucky using the Purple People Bridge, and found an arcade that had three DDR machines, so we played some DDR.  Thursday night was Anny’s birthday, a friend of theirs who i’ve met a few times now, so we went to her place and had a birthday dinner with a couple of her friends, and on Saturday we had a group dinner with Anny, Blake (who i met at Erica’s wedding), and another guy named Steven where i was in charge of making red lentil soup which turned out pretty well when taken into consideration that i had never cooked anything like that before.

The trip felt short – when it came time to leave on Sunday i kept on thinking that i wanted to have one more day, mainly with the kids to give them proper gratitude for their acceptance of me, their acceptance of the piece, and how they performed it.  Hopefully i’ll retain some of the connections i got there – not just professionally, but personally, because as always, everything that i do is motivated by people, the development of acquaintances, friends, and stories – all of which trickles down and hopefully brings more smiles to more lives.

Something like that, anyway.


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