I recently took part in a concert showcasing compositions by students from my college's Contemporary Music Department. The concert itself was by all accounts a great success: packed audience, satisfied composers and a jolly time in the bar afterwards. What I would like to focus on, however, is the atmosphere in the Green Room.
It's a funny thing, performing new works. It's only when I do it, that I come to realise how I've come to rely on what I'll call (probably inappropriately) 'stylistic context'. What I mean by that is everything that tells us what the music on the page is supposed to sound like, but isn't actually in print. And rest assured, I'm not talking about in depth research, as that's something I just don't do, as it's just not a workable approach for me (for various reasons, not just laziness). It is amazing how much information we acquire through osmosis, though, simply from exposure to recordings, performances, conversations with colleagues, interesting facts imparted by conductors, or their personal theories forced on us in rehearsals. Thanks to that, I have an idea of what Mozart should sound like, what constitutes romantic music and what approach to use when singing in that style, etc.
When faced with a brand new piece freshly printed off by my dear composer friend, I have no idea what I'm aiming for. This time I was fortunate enough to have said friend on hand to help me learn his piece, and also to play in it. Even so, our work was focussed on 'what' to sing, rather than 'how' (and I don't mean technique). The lack of 'stylistic context' made me feel incredibly unsettled, to the point when even after singing the right notes, I would stop and apologise for making a mistake. And even though the composer obviously must have a vision of how his music is meant to sound, some of my actual mistakes went unchecked, even up to and including the performance (I'm sure I constantly sang an F# rather than F in the climactic phrase, which I only realised later, while the composer was fine with it all through rehearsals). Maybe my interpretation was just that convincing? (doubtful)
How does this have anything to do with the Green Room? Well, I thought my unease in singing contemporary repertoire stemmed from me being A) not a very good sight-reader, B) used to learning things off copy over a longer period of rehearsing (I learnt said 6 minute piece in 2 days, which is pretty quickly by my standards), and C) not having much experience in performing new music. It turns out that it's more common than I thought, even amongst instrumentalists. All the acts returning to the Green Room had comments like 'we almost lost it' or 'I have no idea if that was right'. There were also a fair few stories about concerts and recordings of works whose composer later congratulated performers for conveying his thoughts perfectly... yet half the music did not match what was on the page. British über-politeness, or lack of 'stylistic context'?
I will admit that I find that unsettled feeling I mentioned rather thrilling. Yes, it's stressful, but also exciting! And in the end, if the composer misses mistakes, then the audience have no chance at all of hearing them. All you have to do is your best, and if anything goes wrong... it was deliberate!
I was once told by a conductor: 'it sounds great, and although it's actually wrong, it would only be a problem if the composer was conducting you'. He also happened to be the composer ;)