Guest Composer Residencies and Horse Poop by Kim Archer

I just finished three guest composer residencies over five weeks:

1. A CBDNA Southern Region performance of Common Threads (Florida State University Symphonic band in Tampa, FL),

Andrew Boss, Jennifer Jolley, Patrick Dunnigan, John Mackey, and Kim Archer at CBDNA  in Tampa

2.The world premiere of American Labor Songs (Nicholls State University Wind Ensemble in Thibodaux, LA), and

3. The world premiere of The Pipers (Desert Winds Freedom Band in Palm Springs, CA).

It was all euphoric, exciting, intense, emotional work, where I made new friends and the music roared into life. Every time, it’s like giving birth … but without all the screaming and messy goo.

Artist residencies are fun and I’ve been doing them for two decades, but even my family and faculty colleagues don’t exactly understand what this means for a composer. They note that I go away for a few days, babble out excited emails or Facebook posts while I’m gone, and then abruptly either go radio silent for several days after I get home, or they end up wishing they’d let me stay radio silent because I’m so grouchy.

Knowing I had three trips coming in a row, I started thinking about this phenomenon. How to explain it? It turns out there’s nothing magical about the process and the solution for grouchiness is simple:

Horse poop.

A guest composer residency starts with getting on a flight to a new place to meet strangers. I’m always nervous, even knowing conductors and bands treat composers so well – in fact, sometimes a bit like a mythical creature, since most people think composers are dead European guys. Really, it takes about three seconds to shake hands, smile, and realize we’re all nervous but we have plenty in common as musicians. Sure, we’ll feel each other out on heavy artistic matters eventually, like favorite craft beers and whether Star Trek II or The Empire Strikes Back is the better sequel, but not right away. On the rare occasions that it takes more than three seconds to break the ice, a colorful story like, “Hey, I just saw airport police hauling away a guy who was screaming profanity – spread eagled and everything!” certainly works.

Second, a residency usually involves several guest lectures and/or private lessons, sometimes including visits to other local schools from 6th grade through graduate students. Each event is akin to a traditional conference presentation, so imagine doing two or three of those in a single day! I have learned how to pace myself, eat healthy (no matter how Wisconsinites rave about cheese curds or how much I want another New Orleans beignet), conserve my energy across several days, and not be shy about asking for caffeine or escaping to the restroom, if only to have a few moments to myself. (This works well for job interviews, too, btw.)

These events are also rare opportunities to speak on topics that don’t come up in day-to-day teaching. What a treat! People actually want to know how I go about composing. They want to hear about the Scottish history that attracted me to the traditional bagpipe music I studied in order to recreate the sound with a concert band, or the strikes I read about that inspired the labor protest songs I wove into a five-movement suite. They want to know what I think about form in the modern era because they’re studying common practice form of the 18th century, or how I know that doubling a tuba with an English horn is going to work if I’ve never heard it done before. They want to hear my stories about other composers and the time I sat down in the wrong seat, next to strangers, after speaking to an audience. Practically never does anyone at home want to know what I think! Also, if I accidentally say something dumb at home, I can be sure someone will call me on it, but guest artists have diplomatic immunity.

Third, people used to believe that composers were too busy listening to the Muses to match their socks or brush their hair, much less speak lucid sentences. The bar for graceful sociability is a lot higher now! As a shy introvert (honestly), it’s sometimes challenging. I can talk forever – after all, I’m a professor – but it’s still quite different from my normal solitary routine. On the other hand, it’s so worth it because there is always something for which I’m needed in these new places. There’s always a bigger reason why I’m there, even if it takes me a while to figure it out. There’s a student or colleague who needs affirmation or rejuvenation, or the ensemble doesn’t yet realize how much more it can accomplish and needs help to negotiate the next step.

There’s often a little tension when I arrive, too, partly because I’m a stranger but also because my music is challenging. I’ve heard a lot of, “We didn’t like this music at first but then we got into it and it grew on us. It’s so cool! But … you know it’s butt-hard, right?” I used to get defensive about it, but the truth is performers and conductors pretty much always rise to the challenge, deliver a powerful performance, and then are stunned by it – elated after conquering frustration or maybe fear. I’m not saying every performance is perfect, only that growth and courage are so much more interesting and important. I think sometimes people invite composers because they need our reassuring presence for encouragement – permission – to try (and potentially not succeed, right?, that’s the risk, but always to try).

Courage changes people; it changes the world; it changes me. By now, I trust growth and courage can happen, will happen, and intuitively feel my responsibility to facilitate it in the guest artist process. It’s an intense, patient act of faith every single time.

And the payoff!

I once worked with a conductor in personal crisis who was ready to leave the profession. He thought our collaboration might be his last performance and told me how difficult rehearsals had been. We worked together to reassure his band, as well as reassure him, that they had all done impeccable preparation, that their music making was strong and good. Just believe, just go for it! After a hot, wonderful concert – a huge burst of energy and enthusiasm from the stage, and best of all, from the audience – this conductor talked about building an entire concert theme around another work which had touched him. He almost began to cry and blurted out, “I haven’t wanted to do this in such a long time!” His performers needed him to pass through his darkness and rejoin them. He needed to see that he could go on and reclaim the joy in music making. Maybe he was ready anyway, or maybe my being there had something to do with this – if so, it’s an honor and a blessing to be of service in this way. It feels Good.

Then there’s the music.

Waiting in the hall before the first rehearsal, there’s nothing more flattering than hearing performers practice passages from my music as they warm up. It’s like a private game of “Name That Tune.” I sit off to the side and play it cool, don’t watch too closely, like I don’t notice, but it’s one of the best parts of being a composer: someone thinks enough of my music to practice it! It’s an appetizer or a first kiss.

There’s practically palpable vibration in the room at any first rehearsal with the composer. The ensemble has been waiting to show off, probably this visit has been hyped up, so although it’s a rehearsal, it’s also almost a concert by itself. They want to play for me and I want to hear it! It’s fun to note who sneaks a look over their stand to watch my reactions vs. who’s too shy to risk eye contact.

The first complete run-through, if I’ve never heard the piece before, is amazing closure – in that I may have written the piece weeks, months, or years ago, and then it finally bursts from its cocoon inside my head to become real sound in other peoples’ ears. Maybe this seems strange, but music is different from other arts. When someone paints a picture, you see it immediately. When someone writes a book, you can read and discuss it immediately. But when a composer writes music, it goes like this:

1. Write the music, alone. Most people can’t “hear” a MIDI demo very well so there’s no good way to share drafts.

2. Find a conductor who’s interested in performing the music, which means devoting their rehearsal time (their “curriculum” for their ensemble) and their own artistic efforts to something unproven.

3. Extract each individual player’s part from the whole score and make each part look impeccable. (usually 20+ parts, 2-6 pages each)

4. Send score and parts to the conductor for rehearsals.

5. Answer questions that come up early on, like “Could you check if this note is correct?” or “Are you sure it should be so fast?” (always blame the notation software)

6. If invited, travel to where those rehearsals are happening. (see above)

7. Finally hear the music!

Clinics, lectures, and lessons can be fatiguing no matter how much fun, but rehearsals are totally exhilarating. Even if it’s a work I’ve heard before, it’s like meeting an old friend after years apart. Have they lost weight, changed their hair, gotten married since last we met? All of that is likely, since good music morphs to fit each context and every band has its own sound and interpretation.

After a day or days together in rehearsal, I can never hear a recording of the concert the same way I heard it live. Composer, conductor, and ensemble work together intensely, usually under the pressure of an impending concert, to shape and polish the performance. At the moment of the concert, it’s like looking at two overlapping X-rays. I remember where we started, but also see how this one passage sings out, now, with more dynamic contrast, or how that tough lick came together so well after we isolated it, or that soloist really blossomed with confidence after a few run-throughs. Energy radiates off the stage when the performers and the conductor are having fun and working hard, smiling, attuned to all the details, and when the audience has been drawn into full attention with them and the music. It doesn’t translate to recording but it’s shimmery and resonant and unforgettable if you were there.

Then, everyone’s emotions flying around afterward become overwhelming: OMG, THE PERFORMANCE ROCKED!!! It was SO MUCH BETTER than the last rehearsal!!! Listen to the applause – they LOVE the music!!! There’s a lot of hugging and smiling in the afterglow of a concert. There’s an intimacy to the whole experience, really, and a lot of new Facebook friends. The conductor and I usually exchange emails or texts for days afterward, even about non-musical things. Having grown so close so quickly, it’s weird to separate at the airport and be done with a snap of fingers.

It’s a big experience. It’s intense and multifaceted, both physical and emotional.

And then, invariably, there’s a massive LOW when I get home. First, it’s plain old physical exhaustion. Everything aches and I can barely hold my eyelids open. There’s also mental and emotional exhaustion, mixed with a jarring recalibration from being an Honored Guest Composer to “plain old Kim” who teaches freshman theory in the basement of Dunham Hall to students who might not even realize I am a composer. It’s a tremendous letdown of artistic energy and focus into the pedestrian reality of grading papers and paying bills. It’s weird to drive myself in my own car again, too.

My family says they can set their watches by this cycle: I’ll go away, send epic, excited emails and Facebook posts, then come home to days of abrupt, utter silence. They don’t bother to call anymore during this time; they know I’m face-planted on my couch, narcoleptic – and oh my, the depression lingers long after the aches and fatigue subside. Then I’d complain about my day job, let things get under my skin too easily, and neglect housekeeping and correspondence. It wasn’t safe to be around me again for at least 3-4 days.

David Maslanka used to tell me if I did a better job managing the highs by not letting them become too euphoric (whatever that means), the lows wouldn’t knock me over, either. What would be the point of not fully enjoying the highs?, I used to wonder. Composing is hard, frustrating work – the highs are the only payoff! Anyway, it was hard to take him seriously because he so often complained, himself, of fatigue and emotional exhaustion after residencies. Then David’s wife, Alison, told me how she learned to deal with his coming home so ego-inflated he could barely get his head through the door, followed by terrible crashes: she insisted that as soon as he put his suitcase down, he had to take the wheelbarrow out to their pasture and pick up all the poop deposited by their four horses. David smiled and shrugged when I asked. It’s hard to feel like King of the World whilst holding a shovel full of horse poop, right? It was also a routine chore in the Maslanka household that reestablished normalcy for him.

I have a dog now, who celebrates my return from residencies as only a dog can. That helps. She also keeps me anchored to reality: I can’t fall into depression when she needs to be fed, walked, and played with. Still, with three residencies in a row this spring, I knew I was headed for a terrible crash. For the first time, I left myself a Horse Poop List:

  • pick up prescriptions
  • pay bills
  • clean gutters
  • change the furnace filter
  • iron the laundry

I won’t even pretend I escaped the siren song of my couch, but this time I did it with my dog snuggled in my armpit and backlogged episodes of “Young Sheldon” running. I think I’ll always feel, when coming home, a little like the recruit on first leave from military boot camp: I’ve seen things, I’ve changed in powerful ways, I’m different from the people at home now, yet nobody at home was there so they can’t see it and they can’t understand. Still, home is home and life is in the horse poop. It’d be nice to live in the perpetual world of the Guest Composer, but when would I get any actual composing done?


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