Something that most people don’t realize about orchestral music is this: It’s very hard for composers ever to hear what their compositions actually sound like.
I’m the first to admit I didn’t fully understand this until recently. Having been fascinated by the idea of computer music ever since I bought an Amiga 1000 computer back in the Bronze Age, I’ve always assumed that all you have to do is lay down MIDI tracks for all your instruments, hit a button, and then the computer plays your new symphony for you.
The occasional dissenting voice I’d hear from people who knew anything about music, I managed to dismiss as elite audiophile grumbling.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
This all came to light this week, when Eugene’s OrchestraNext sat down in a spacious studio at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance to play – for the first time it’s ever been performed – and record Kenji Bunch’s brand-new score for Eugene Ballet’s brand-new production of “The Snow Queen.”
As OrchestraNext’s Brian McWhorter conducted 23 musicians from the student/professional orchestra, I sat in a small control booth, which was dominated by an enormous sound board that could have come from any rockumentary you’ve ever seen on MTV. UO recording engineer Lance Miller presided at the board, watching the orchestra through a glass window, and said things like “Take 47!” into a microphone as McWhorter and his forces launched into sections of the hour and forty minute composition.
Behind him, in chairs along one wall, Bunch and Eugene Ballet artistic director Toni Pimble sat side by side, scribbling notes and, in Bunch’s case, occasionally offering suggestions to Miller and to UO music professor Bob Ponto, the producer for the session.
The recording they were making will have two uses. First off, Pimble will use it in rehearsal for choreographing the ballet with her dancers when rehearsals start in January.
Second, perhaps 70 minutes of the music will be put on a CD, which will be available for sale at the Hult Center when the ballet opens there in April.
Back to my original point about sound quality: I had heard a brief MIDI extract of Bunch’s composition last summer, when I visited him at his Portland home for an interview. To be honest, he didn’t really want to play it for me, and I understood why as soon as the music started coming out of the computer and speakers.
I could tell that it was music, but the sound was all electronica and no orchestra. I couldn’t even tell what instruments were being simulated. I listened and thought – well, I’m not sure what I thought.
When I heard the same music played on real instruments this week, the sound was dazzling and wonderful, lush, dark and lyrical, with layers of interest and meaning that not only invite but demand further listening.
Here’s how Pimble put it when I asked for her impressions after one of the UO recording sessions this week:
“The opening of the ballet – which sounded like an ambulance siren on the MIDI recording – is actually a beautiful mysterious and icy sound that in no way resembles the MIDI sounds,” she said. “I have been listening to a MIDI recording for months now. It is less than ideal when trying to get a sense of the overall instrumentation of Kenji’s music. His unique blend of the usual and unusual pairings of instruments creates wonderful color to the sound of the music.”
She went on to talk about the complexity of the composition.
“I think that this has been a challenging commission for Kenji. I have asked him to write a cohesive score, but the scenes of the story are very different. The Snow Queen’s palace, the romantic music of Gerda and Kay, the quirky music of the conjure woman’s garden, the fields of crows, the prince and princess palace and the gypsy scene are all very diverse scenes, not only in place and time but in the telling of the tale. He has handled this diversity wonderfully.
“The colors and sounds of each scene are clearly different and transport us to each scene and yet the segues into each scene are beautifully crafted and seamless. Some scenes are very rhythmical, others flow more with lush romantic sound.”
Pimble said hearing the music actually played by a live orchestra is helping her with ideas for choreographing the work.
“Music is the catalyst for me when choreographing, so the more I can immerse myself in the music before stepping into the studio to begin rehearsals with the dancers, the more prepared I am with ideas for the dancers and the rest of my fellow collaborators. Yes, I have been inspired this week!”
Hearing the live performance helped focus her ideas on particular scenes, Pimble said.
“I think the gypsy scene is going to be challenging music to choreograph to but very exciting, too. The field of crows is clever, complex music with a light touch and will definitely be fun to work on. Kenji told me he watched some TV programs on crows before attempting that scene.”
To prepare for this week’s recording sessions, McWhorter told me earlier, he has been studying the score – but not listening to the MIDI version of the music.
He and Pimble, McWhorter added, have been consulting with Bunch by telephone or by email about once a week as Bunch developed the piece. I asked if this amounts to composing music by committee.
“We try to be as delicate as possible,” the conductor said. “It’s this funny dance. Kenji is so open to ideas, as opposed to a composer who has a rigid vision. He’s not dogmatic, at all.”
McWhorter and Bunch have been friends since they were students together at the Juilliard School years ago. “I am considering Kenji’s sensibilities almost more than anything. That comes from knowing him. What kind of things he values. He’s not one of those composers tied to the two-dimensionality of the score.”
This is the sixth story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment.
See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch; Part Four, on costumer Jonna Hayden; and Part Five, on dancers Isaac Jones and Sara Stockwell.
“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.