Blog: Sharing The Stage With Greatness

3/5/11 - Sharing The Stage With Greatness

Imagine for a minute if you were a young physicist asked to give a paper on your theory of relativity. Pretty cool, right? What they neglect to tell you is that you will be giving your paper right after Albert Einstein, who just so happens to be presenting on the same topic at the same lecture. Suddenly you are feeling a bit less confident on your paper... Sure, people assure you that it's solid and reads well, but still - Albert friggin' Einstein, holy crap!

Keeping the Einstein analogy fresh in our minds, here is a recent program that featured my vocal music:

Wow! Dichterliebe, arias from some of the greatest operas ever written, and... some guy who isn't dead yet. As I move farther away from the "student composer" phase of my career, I find my works are no longer programmed on recitals solely featuring living composers and/or new music. While I LOVE the opportunity to present my music live, the pictured scenario poses a new set of challenges both real and imagined.

John Adams has written on this phenomenon as it relates to orchestral music, where you are nearly always programmed alongside the Great Masters. It is a harrowing experience to squirm and shrink while your piece - containing a fair amount of dissonance but sounding like total cacophony next to the tonal Classical era - is presented to the audience who just sat through an amazing rendition of a genre-defining song cycle and popular arias. I suppose I have the good fortune that the thing is about war and death, which helps the audience relate a bit more to some of the crazier bits. But sharing the stage with some absolutely smashing music also means that (to me) the weak spots in my work sound weaker, somehow less perfect than if they were on a recital of other "apprentice" composers.

I remember a conversation with James Barnes during a lesson where he talked about a young student who came in and said they felt paralyzed by the greatness of Beethoven, and how it was impossible to write a piano sonata (or something) since LVB was so good. Barnes told them - in his typical acerbic wit, not pulling any punches - that they were an arrogant fool for trying to compare to Beethoven at all. The moral of his story was to just be yourself, and it holds true in this situation as well. I am not intentionally trying to compare myself to Mozart or Schumann, but there's always a bit of a nagging feeling that everyone else in the audience is comparing you and judging you harshly. Writing this a few months after the fact makes the worrying seem silly (which it is), but it is a part of the business of contemporary art music and I am grateful to be programmed alongside those great composers, stress and all.

In closing, all of this is probably another case of composer neuroses and over-analyzing, typical of the breed. As I was talking with someone after the concert about my piece, someone turned around and said "Oh, you wrote one of those? Which one was yours?" True story.