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Among the foothills

April 26, 2012

Two days to go till our Huddersfield Residency and excitement is reaching fever pitch! Or rather, some of us are running a high fever of panic trying to get everything in some sort of state to start work…

By this point in the process everyone has (I think) a pretty good idea of what’s going on and what they have to do. A big component of our planning has been mapping out the learning process (the plan of attack) and breaking things into achievable stages.

Our first taste of the project was back in September, when we held a workshop day to R+D some of the main concepts and techniques Aaron intended using. If you’re going to write highly technical stuff for performers using a lot of technical jargon it’s as well to talk to real performers as much as possible about your ideas before committing to a plan! – an obvious point that nonetheless seems to elude a lot of composers (and I suspect it may come up again in our composition workshop at the University on Tuesday…) In a project like this, it’s crucial, not least to get performers onside, give them a stake in the project and brace them for what’s coming.

I’m not sure it totally worked. There was palpable shock, if not fear, in people’s eyes when we reconvened with the finished scores (actually, parts – for once we decided there was little point in everyone having the whole score so the singers are working from parts. I think it looks less frightening that way…) in March, for what was grandly termed an Orientation day. At that point there was little to be done but discuss the copious instructions, gingerly test the waters with a couple of carefully selected easy bits, and then spend a few hours writing the beats in. Yes, that’s right. Just writing them in, nice and slowly, a simple task to get everyone au fait with the rhythmic framework, without which any personal work on the piece was doomed to failure before it started.

At last we were into the project and among the notes, and things were looking considerably brighter during the next day of rehearsals three weeks later. In the intervening time we’d been on the road with major new pieces by Joanna Bailie and Christopher Fox, as well as works by Lucier, Cage, Aldo Clementi, Fokkens, and Machaut, and most singers had had little or no time to work in depth on the Cassidy. The approach we now took was to schedule for each singer short bursts of 1-to-1 work with Aaron or me, interspersed with private learning. By the end of the day everyone had a foothold on the task and the right tools – mental and physical – to go about it. What was perhaps most interesting (as will be discussed in future posts from both Aaron and me) was how extraordinarily differently people approached the same set of problems – and how very different the difficulties they found were.

And so to the Residency: two days of ensemble rehearsal, during which I hope we will cover everything in the piece to a greater or lesser degree. In the spirit of holding myself a hostage to fortune, I’m anticipating that we will basically be able to do it, probably about quarter-speed, by the end of Monday. Which is certainly not to say that much of it will be very accurate: some people I’m sure will have pretty much nailed everything, others will still be finding their way – though I hope not to the extent that they can’t make any sort of stab at their parts…I expect some to have gained confidence, others to have lost some and to be needing some more help.

What is so beautiful about these mountainous challenges – the sort we spend most of our careers, if not lives, subconsciously shying away from – is how complex and unpredictable people’s paths are towards the goal, how they confront our confusions, insecurities and weaknesses and show us at our sincerest and most vulnerable; how the process opens us out, strips us naked in front of our friends and colleagues. We’ve learnt over the years that there is no shame in finding things hard where your friends and colleagues support you; one thing I am certain of is that in this particular team we will all be helping each other.

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