And I'm more than ok with that. Criticism is an art that seems to be falling away in the arts. There's not enough "holy crap, this sucks! and let me tell you why I think it sucks!" We coddle the youth, say "that's nice, but you could maybe do this thing a bit better," and when they don't change it we chalk it up as a learning experience. It's a mindset I've actually been trying to change in myself.
Socratic method is all well and good. Leading people to their mistakes. But, sometimes, the best way to do that is to give your honest opinion. "I don't like this passage. I think it's this problem. Why don't we find out why?" rather than "That's nice, I like it. But..." It's a change, and one that needs to happen.
And that's exactly what I got from Yehudi Wyner and Augusta Read Thomas. I played Till Coffee Do Us Part for Wyner. He praised the lyricism of the vocal writing. And attacked the instrumental writing quite heavily.
Wyner felt that the instrumental writing was getting in the way of the singing. It was at times too dense without any harmonic support for the singers. I shrugged at that, since that was more or less the style I was going for in the beginning. However, he didn't even like the later parts that were traditionally founded. Wyner thought the harmonizations in the strings got in the way, and that they didn't offer much harmonic support.
I appreciate those comments. I will take a look at the beginning again--it is very likely that the thick nature is causing issues. In a previous editing, that section was thinned out, and an entire section removed, but I may not have gone far enough. Time for some erasing.
Then there was the plot. Boy did Wyner dislike the plot. Elevating coffee to being an opera, creating a farce. He thought I failed miserably. But he couldn't give me a why. Another student in the masterclass did, after much questioning give me a good solid answer: The conflict starts too early, and that makes it not seem like it's going anywhere. AH! That's some incredibly good criticism. And there's a damn good chance he's right. In fact, I'm pretty sure I agree with him. But, it took some intense questioning, more or less forcing an articulate answer to get it from him.
All in all, I agreed with a lot of what Yehudi Wyner said--vocal writing is hard, opera is even harder. Setting prose is a bitch, and it's very easy to let the background, and your grand theories, get in the way of good writing. Can you write a dense, complicated opera? I totally think so. Shadowtime by Ferneyhough is fantastic. But it will be a tough piece to sell.
And that farce and parody are not everyone's cup of tea, and people are much less forgiving on it. A good farce is worth a million dramas, but people forgive a drama.
Augusta Read Thomas was the same as she's ever been. Many years ago, I was in a masterclass with her--it was 2005, I believe, and the piece was one of my first. Possibly my first to really be played in public. A little duet from trombone and marimba. It used mutes, some dead strokes, mallet changes, all sorts of things I felt to be very "avant-garde." I was, after all, the "crazy composer" in the group. LOL
I remember a few things from that masterclass. One was Thomas praising my lyricism in my writing AND playing. Bad idea--never nurture a musician, they might see you 8 years later! lolz. Another bit was being able to sing your music. I nailed that bit, but others had some difficulty. Of course, I was also PLAYING mine, so it's almost like cheating--singing what I play was a normal part of my trombone lessons. And I remember something she said to another student: "I hear Beethoven, a Schubert, and maybe a little Brahms. But I don't hear any of you! You are what you eat--or listen to. Listen to yourself!"
Ah, for a 20 year old just starting in composition, this was a big eye opener!
With that knowledge, I entered my masterclass with All Things Are Not Equal: Sinfonietta Edition, recently recorded by Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman conducting. It's a piece that's about as unpretentious as you can get. Straight forward, jazz and funk "inspired" (hell, it's easier to classify in those terms than "contemporary!"), and by todays standards, somewhat short. The performance is solid, and it was obvious the group had fun.
I came prepared. Thomas listened, gave some initial thoughts. The biggest one? She didn't think it went far enough. I stayed tied to my groove, let the groove playout, and didn't do much variation. True enough. And I didn't set out to do much variation. And then the singing started.
First it was "sing the first groove." Easy enough. Alright, now do a simple variation. Then another. Alright, now do something far away from the groove, harmonically and stylistically. Ok, do another, but add in longer notes.
I did all these without breaking much of a sweat. I did have a tendency to speed up, which annoyed me .As I was snapping and improvising, I actually said "I keep speeding up. Ugh," then went back into the singing. I added in all sorts of things--pitch, percussive sounds, all sorts of consonants and vowels, mixed and matched from whatever...and I always made a point to end by grabbing the groove right where it should be when I ended. Ok, that last bit was me showing off.
The looks from the assembled group were, well...worth the showing off. Even Augusta Read Thomas looked suitable impressed. Of course, I knew something like this was coming--I had practicing the grooves a bit, and had all the lines in my head, so I could sing them. And while I'm a crappy improviser on trombone, that's a problem with my control of the instrument, not the brain. This played into my strengths. And when it was done, I already knew where it was going...
Hey, John, since you can come up with all these ideas spur of the moment, why aren't any in here? Where's all that crazy improvisational writing? I sputtered the easy answer: "You write a simple tune to allow people to improvise around. In this case a groove, and setting up a certain feel. Then the soloist would do their thing. Guess I flubbed a bit when I reduced the improvising..."
Ah, see, I had. And Thomas called me one it. She more or less had said that in her comments, that it didn't go "far enough," but she wanted to prove that point unequivocally. And she did. I softball'ed the transcription. The statement of "I did it in 24 hours and didn't give it much thought," is a poor answer, so I didn't give it. There's no reason for half-assed work. And it All Things is a bit half-assed. Written quickly (over about 4 days), re-orchestrated even quick (24 hours over about 2 days). It was half-assed. And I rightly got called on it.
Really, Wyner and Thomas were telling me the same thing--I hadn't treated the material with enough care. This echoed Ferneyhough's earlier masterclass. It seems to be an issue. And all three pieces were developed quite differently. It took me 8 months or so to write Dance. Till Coffee was a solid 2-3 months, though definitely rushed toward the end. All Things was about a week total. And yet they all had issues with "care."
I just finished revising Cake for a performance in November. The same could easily be said of that score, and I spent about a year on it! A YEAR! And while, musically, I think it's alright, notationally it was horrid. Lack of care, in this case toward the presentation.
So, two things came out of this--1) Direct criticism is a good thing! 2) Don't be a jerk and half-ass any of your work. Even if you worked your ass off on the first draft, you've got three or four more to go!
More than one draft? IN MUSIC?!? SHEER FOLLY!
Bruckner would disagree, I think...