Posts Tagged ‘Bill Harrison’

Stages of Preparation

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

In an e-mail that I sent to my mailing list last night, and in a tweet that I sent a few days ago, I hinted at the stages I’ve gone through in preparing Rural Sketches for its premiere (See March 31 for more on the premiere). Here’s some additional thinking, using the framework I sent in my e-mail:

  • excitement at the idea of bringing something new and cool into the world
  • panic when you see the composer’s first ideas, which all appear completely unplayable
  • scramble to find players capable of it
  • shared relief when you find that the other players think it’s unplayable, too
  • curious intrigue as you find moments in the piece that give you a chill up your spine
  • excitement returning as you find out it’s not impossible and actually is going to be pretty cool
  • realistic acceptance that you need a skilled conductor to guide you over the finish line.


Back in October Matthew Coley reached out to me to see if I was interested in co-commissioning a piece. He had a venue in mind for the premiere, and a date. And a composer, for that matter. I said yes. That starts the excitement: A new piece! An opportunity to perform!

Because, that is what all of this is about, sharing something with an audience. I know that sounds like a platitude, but if you’ve never done it, you can’t really know what a pleasure it is to have someone who has listened to you share with you their experience, and to know you brought that about.


A composer in the 21st Century is challenged to always come up with something fresh. Since recorded music can be heard everywhere and repeatedly, for a modern composer there is pressure to always come up with something new, rather than repeat ideas or even simply polish a good idea through repeated exploration. So Igor’s score naturally includes extended techniques, tricky rhythmic combinations and unfamiliar harmonic language. Now, no performer wants to be Leopold Auer (you are asking yourself, “who?” aren’t you) and refuse a piece as being too difficult. So I wrote back with some suggestions, gritted my teeth and got to work trying to figure out how some of these things would work.

On reflection, of course, it’s not that bad, but that part of the story comes later.


A recurring problem for me, finding the players. Chicago Bass Ensemble does have a core group, the folks I like best to work with, but many of them were not available for this particular date. I also held out on filling the final chair or two, wondering if I needed a particular skill set (I was thinking about Stewart Miller or Bill Harrison in the event I needed an experienced jazz player). Of course, holding out got me in trouble as days and weeks passed and everyone I contacted was busy. The good news at the end: I’ve made new connections with Andy Anderson and Charlie Macko, and all six slots are filled.


The first rehearsal we had, on February 28, was just Andy, Julian and myself. Each of us arrived with our worry spots: “what do you think about this measure, how are we going to do that?” and “do you really think we can take that movement at that tempo?” But it was all good-natured, as is typical of bass players: Congeniality and collegiality rule us. And that shared experience brings a lot of individual relief, as in “I’m not alone!”

Excitement Returning

As momentum built, as we had more rehearsals together (but note: as of this writing, we still have not had all six bassists and the percussionist together in one room at one time), we have started to find those moments where the piece “comes together:” where something coordinates, hangs in, resonates, and dare I say it, something sublime emerges.

(A few of my personal favorites:

  • mm 296-297, in the movement called “Lullaby”, a lovely little pizzicato melody strung across all six basses;
  • the pedal-tone like chords of basses 4, 5, and 6 in the first movement, mm 9-15;
  • mm 252-253 in the movement “Harvest” where all six basses play an aggressive rhythm, that was a fun one to figure out;
  • the end of “Lullaby”;
  • …and at this point I could go on.)

I can’t wait for an audience to hear it!


We did realize, however, that as enthusiastic as we were all finding ourselves, there is definitely stuff that doesn’t “just work.” I had casually been discussing this possibility with my teacher Leslie B. Dunner, and the rest of the performers agreed: we would benefit from having a conductor. I wrote a little about this earlier.

Now that we’ve had a rehearsal with Leslie conducting, I know it was the right thing to bring him in. It was a minor shock to go from the very light-hearted, congenial, kidding around, “what are we doing” atmosphere that characterized our early rehearsals to a much more structured format with Leslie truly leading us toward a vision for the piece. But once I got past that, I really enjoyed seeing what an ‘outside’ perspective–i.e. someone who didn’t have to be concerned with where to put fingers and what bow speed to use–could bring to the piece. And honestly, Leslie is an extremely talented composer and conductor. With just a few days study, he really understood the piece.

And so, with just a few days to go before the premiere on March 31, I am excited, panicked, scrambling, excited again . . . and looking forward to it.