Every so often, I go through symphony envy…
I’m older than Beethoven was when he wrote his first symphony, but younger than Brahms by the time he finished his initial contribution to the genre, so maybe it’s just a part of the phase of life I’m in now–a desire to work on big, meaningful projects that really define who I am as a musician and a human being.
It might be that I’ve been running across symphony references–today is Phillip Glass’ birthday, and the American Composer’s Orchestra is giving the premiere of his Ninth Symphony in New York (I won’t be there… we have band rehearsal in Oklahoma). Additionally, my facebook friend David Sartor, whose music I have been admiring of late, posted that he has begun working on a Symphony No. 1, despite not having a commission, because he feels like he needs to do that. David is somewhat older and more established as a composer than I am, but I understand the desire to tackle this genre, whether the results are immediately wanted or not. A respondent to David’s facebook post said that if he wrote his symphony for band instead of orchestra, he’d have plenty of opportunities for performance, which is probably true. Last, I just finished reading Nicholas Tawa’s new book The Great American Symphony. As I read about some pieces that I’ve loved for years and some that are unfamiliar to me, I came to realize what an American thing it actually is to write a symphony.
So, first, Phillip Glass. I’ve come to the conclusion that the minimalist label might be incorrect for Glass’s music–his textures are reminiscent of true minimalism, of course, but the structures of his music are not, even in pieces like Wichita Sutra Vortex. Unlike Reich or Riley, they are meditative, but not entrancing. A thought, and I will have to think more about it later. Happy Birthday! and congrats on your premiere tonight, Mr. Glass.
As a performer who has played orchestrally but whose main experience is in band, I wonder if my desire to write a symphony for orchestra, like David Sartor’s, is not a little bit misplaced, or in my case, even a form of betrayal. I have spent my professional life promoting the idea that bands can, should and must play serious original music–like the symphonies for band by Hindemith, Persichetti and Gould–I even wrote my DMA document on a symphony for band (by Donald McGinnis), but I want my first symphony to be for orchestra.
When I wrote my biggest orchestra piece to date, Five Rhythmic Etudes, I had just turned thirty and initially started sketching a symphony–unlike many composers, I have only even made a halting attempt once! The piece turned into something else, and I can see now that I wasn’t ready to write a symphony. If a great college or military band came to me tomorrow with a commission for a symphony, I would probably accept it–all the while wishing the piece was for orchestra. Am I being a traitor to the very movement that has allowed me to participate fully in serious music as a professional? I’ve written some band music over the years–and some of my best pieces are for band–but I’m still not ready to completely admit that I am a “band composer.” As many doors as that might open, it certainly seems to slam others shut. Of course, writing a symphony could have precisely the same effect.
That said, I’m excited about my major project for the first part of the year, a suite for strings. Alongside, I’m cohosting an SCI conference, so I’ll be professionally busy for quite a bit of the year, but 2013 is wide open–if any conductors or patrons are reading this, I’m want to write a symphony, and I won’t do it without a commission: I don’t write anything unless there is a firm promise of a performance. Listen to my music and see what you think, and you know where to find me.