New music, the current term in use for contemporary classical music, can be very difficult for listeners and players alike. For uninitiated listeners, the varied unfamiliar styles can appear as a disconnect which their ears never resolve. Many players can have the same experience depending upon their background and experiences. A musician playing in a new music group has the advantage of being able to hear and play a piece multiple times within a short time span during the rehearsal process.
A piece of new music doesn’t always present itself upon first listen. Sometimes it needs repeated hearings to more fully understand what the composer intends or the effect it’s supposed to have on the listener. Many times for the musician, new music can be very difficult to play, fully taxing the limits of the player’s abilities. It’s easy for both the listener and the player to dismiss new work when it offers so many challenges, but the reward can be great for those who take the time to study and unravel its mysteries.
For next Tuesday’s performance of Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maitre, our group of six musicians has nine scheduled rehearsals, of which we have had three so far. Before we started the group rehearsals, we each had a private meeting with Alexander Mickelthwate, the conductor. In preparation for that meeting, I downloaded the piece from iTunes and listened whenever I had the chance, just to let it soak in and become familiar with the musical vocabulary. Shortly after that, I picked up the music and took a quick look through it to make note of any trouble spots. Well, the whole thing is a trouble spot! The guitar part is a thirty-two page monster full of unusual and unfamiliar note groupings and extremely complex rhythms, many at lightning fast tempos. Of course, every instrument in the piece has the same challenges, and I knew I had my work cut out for me. I would be spending December (and the first two weeks of the new year) in the proverbial “woodshed”.
I thought that my meeting with Alexander on December 13th went decently enough, though I wish I had more time to prepare. He’s a relaxed, friendly musician and an excellent conductor who had done an extraordinary amount of preparation for this piece. I was semi-comfortable with the first and fourth movements (there’s no guitar in the second or third movements), so he just started conducting and I played. Occasionally I’d have a question concerning how he was going to beat a particular measure or how to phrase a particularly difficult subdivision, and I’d write it into the music along with other helpful notes. After the fourth movement I told him that I wasn’t totally comfortable with the rest of the piece yet, so we forged ahead at a slower pace and tempo, mostly taking note of beat patterns. It was an exhilarating afternoon and I felt I had enough information to continue practicing on my own until the first group rehearsal three weeks later.
Last week, on our first day, we had a double rehearsal and one more the next day. It gave the group a chance to really latch into the work and start to make sense and shape of it. The give-and-take between the musicians and the conductor was healthy and the camaraderie amongst everyone felt good. There were a lot of eye-opening moments where you could see exactly how your part fit in with the others. It also gave me a chance to see where more work needed to be done on my own.
So I’ve been practicing several hours a day since last week, trying to make the music feel as natural and unforced as possible. It’s coming along well, but sometimes it feels like walking a tightrope. Being able to live with a piece like this for so long lets you get inside the composer’s head, or as close as you can possibly get. It unfolds slowly and the layers start to fall away until you start to grasp some meaning, grace and beauty from all the notes…and that is a great feeling. I wish that all listeners had the time to be able to take the same journey, to understand and appreciate a difficult piece.