Judd on Acadia, Editing, and Big, Messy Orchestras
17 Apr 2012
Inside the Classics

As promised, here’s the first installment of my post-premiere conversation with Judd. I knew he’d been thrilled with the performances of Acadia and the audience reaction to it, but I wanted to know more about how his time in Minneapolis had informed his view of orchestras and his own approach to composition.

Sam: Now that you have some distance from all the excitement of premiere week, how do you think Acadia stacks up against your other recent work? Did it all sound exactly the way you expected it to, or were there a few surprises (positive or negative)? Would you ever go back and make edits to a piece after it’s been premiered?

Judd: I would be lying if I said that Acadia sounded exactly like I expected — but that doesn’t mean what you might think it means. It’s not that I had a specific expectation about how it would sound, and Acadia “missed” that target, but rather that there’s a range of possibility in which I hoped the actual performance would fall, based on the notes I wrote on the page. If I knew exactly how it would sound, I wouldn’t be doing my job well — there needs to be an element of uncertainty, of genuine risk, for a piece to feel fresh to me, and not just be a rehashing of the things I have done before. Hopefully, I’m taking informed-enough risks that they will pay off (I did go to a lot of music school and have studied many, many scores over the years), but a risk-free piece is just not interesting to me. Having said that, I was particularly happy with the payoff from those risky sections, including the very opening, which asks the strings to do something unusual, and which could have failed miserably, but instead worked like I had hoped it would — or within my range of hope.

I’ll make a few edits, reflecting balance and notation issues that we encountered and solved in the process of putting the piece together, but they are very small compared to the size of the piece. The overall form won’t be touched at all, and 99 percent of the notes will stay the same. That’s usually true for the pieces I write; I’d rather get on to the next thing than spend time revising a piece, especially since I could decide in a few years that the first one is better! When you look at the history of music composition, it’s not at all clear that composers have a good sense about how their pieces should be revised, so it’s probably best to leave well enough alone, unless I really feel like a piece has the potential to improve substantially with revision. I can’t remember feeling that way since 2004, and that was with a piece that I had written before I attended graduate school, so it’s an entirely different context.

Sam: Was the experience of working with a full symphony orchestra different from what you were expecting? Is the sheer size and complexity of the ensemble a barrier to creativity, or a welcome challenge? Were there times during the composing process when you thought, “What am I going to do with the bassoons?” or some such?

Judd: Like I said in one of the post-concert Q&A periods, the biggest difference between writing for a giant orchestra versus everything else is that you have absolutely no time to really work with the players who are involved with making the music. Actually, this orchestra was particularly awesome about giving me their time — especially Brian Mount and the other percussionists, but also [associate concertmaster] Roger Frisch and [principal librarian] Paul Gunther and others in the orchestra — so it made the process feel a little more familiar.

When I write for soloists or small ensembles, I’ll often include some things that I think really might need to be substantially revised — just as in the previous question, I take chances, but I try to go further than I think is necessarily reasonable, so that we can scale back in collaboration (me and the performers together), rather than my trying to make decisions about how to scale back that will be less well informed. I also leave a huge amount of room for the ensemble to make the piece their own, with indications like crescendos often lacking dynamics on one or both ends, or a section marked simply “more energetic” or “gradually losing intensity”, because I know that the group will make music in their own style, versus other groups that will have different interpretations, or even later performances by the same group.

Of course, then I’ll work with those musicians in rehearsal and we’ll hash out the possibilities and come to a consensus that is a combination of me (in the score and in my input) and them (in the performance and their input). That is how I like to work and it has nothing to do with the process of writing for the orchestra! (Or, actually, even with the process of writing for larger forces, an operatic or music/theatrical setting, where you generally have much more rehearsal time than with an orchestra — the standard orchestra performance, even in a “non-standard” situation like Inside the Classics, is an island of no-time-to-rehearse in any classical context.)

The way I write music, I rarely think something like “what am I going to do with the bassoons?” because my music is all about layers working against each other and then coming together, so having more layers to play with is just a lot of fun. So that makes it all a really welcome challenge, despite what I just wrote about how unusual the process is for me.

Sam: Did this experience change your perception of orchestras at all?

Judd: I maintain what I said at the concerts, which is that the orchestra is a truly bizarre thing to have as the centerpiece of our classical music universe. It’s not a coherent ensemble — it is a big, messy family. But maybe that messiness is what makes it continually interesting as a palette for composers to use; if it were a more “sensible” or monochromatic instrument, my guess is that more of the music written for it would sound too similar, and we’d all get bored by the result. Actually, this experience seriously confirmed one related thing that I think about the orchestra, and again, it goes back to what I wrote above — writing for it is a crazy, crazy balance between writing what “sounds good” for the orchestra (placing the instruments in the same relationships to one another that the people who brought those instruments into the orchestra would have done) and writing what you think might sound good for the orchestra, but you don’t know for sure will work.

I’ve heard many many many pieces that sound like “good orchestra pieces”: they use the instruments in the ways that they have been shown to work. Often, in 2012, that means also including sounds that used to be “extended techniques” but which are pretty common in all post-1950 Western music. If you use some of those (which you can look up and make sure they sound good by studying Ligeti, Boulez, Berio, Lutoslawski, etc.) in the context of a score that mainly uses standard, good-sounding techniques, the result is a contemporary orchestra piece that will probably not offend anyone, will make you look good in your role as “the composer”, will “be interesting” to most of the audience, who have not heard the techniques before except in horror movies if they watch those, and will satisfy the people who commissioned you.

Will this piece necessarily be good? Of course not! Will it necessarily be bad? Of course not! I can think of a bunch of composers who I consider really good composers, who write this way. A good composer can write in any style and still be a good composer. And yes, I know what you’re thinking — Acadia is more or less written in this style. Though I might push back on that a little….still, it’s not a positive or negative thing, with a caveat: the problem comes when you get composers who haven’t figured out how to be good composers because they’ve never taken chances with their own style, to see what works for them, what expresses the ideas that they have about music and life, and instead have defaulted to what they have been shown and told “works”.

So at the end of the day, I’m suspicious of a piece that sounds like it works, if I don’t know the composer, because my immediate suspicion is that this is a composer who has not asked himself or herself enough questions about his or her own music. And then sometimes, the piece tells me, no, you idiot, I have asked questions, lots of questions, and this piece is part of the answer. And I think, what a fool I’ve been. That’s a great feeling. I hope someone in the audience had that experience with Acadia, but maybe that’s too much to ask.

In the next installment of our conversation, we’ll touch on Judd’s compositional process and hear about what’s next for him. Chime in down in the comments if there’s anything you’d like to ask him this week.

<December 2018>

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