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Composer Institute: An Insider's View with Emily Cooley

Composer Institute: An Insider's View with Emily Cooley

On Sunday, January 24, 2016, seven rising-star composers traveled to Minneapolis to begin their participation in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, where they spent a week learning about the art and business of composing from inside an orchestra. After four days of sessions with musicians, music director, librarians, artistic staff and industry pros, they each experienced a thrilling moment: a performance of their music, led by Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, before a cheering crowd at Orchestra Hall. Audiences experienced the full force of seven creative, distinct musical voices writing new music for today’s symphony orchestra.

Emily Cooley, one of the 2016 Composer Institute's featured composers, blogged throughout the week to provide a first-hand look at the many events of the Composer Institute. As workshops and rehearsals take place, Emily shared with us her insight, experiences and reflections.


DAY 1

My name is Emily Cooley and I’ll be blogging about my experiences as one of seven composers at the 2016 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. Thanks in advance for reading! I’m heading to Minneapolis today, and hoping this weekend’s east coast snow storm won’t delay my travel. Although I grew up in the Midwest, it’s been several years since I visited Minnesota specifically, so I’m looking forward to the trip.

First of all, I’m thrilled to be a participant in this year’s Institute. I’m currently an artist diploma student at the Curtis Institute of Music, and last year Osmo Vänskä was a guest conductor for the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. I’ll never forget hearing the orchestra rehearse and perform Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra under his baton. It’s such a difficult and dynamic piece, and I've never heard the orchestra sound better. The six other composers and I are so fortunate that we’ll get to hear our pieces conducted by Maestro Vänskä – so the aspect of the Institute I’m most excited for is orchestra rehearsals.

When I reflect on the orchestra pieces I’ve composed in the past few years, it feels like each one is wildly different from the last (although maybe my teachers or colleagues would disagree with that statement... I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the lack of objectivity we all have when viewing our own works). I suppose part of this variety is just for the sake of experimentation, for learning how the orchestra works. And part of it is that at this point in my life, I don’t feel I have one particular approach to composing, or even to orchestration. I’m particularly looking forward to our meetings with the orchestra musicians, because I know we’ll gain a lot of insight into the performer experience of reading new music.

I know a few of the other six composer fellows, but not all of them...so I’m excited to meet the rest! To me it feels like the American composition community is pretty small, which is something I love. I’ve made many composer friends through summer programs, conferences, and professional opportunities, and I encounter the same people again and again. I’m sure this week will be no exception. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for my next update!

DAY 2

It’s the end of day two, and I can report that I’m completely exhausted but very happy. Although orchestra rehearsals will officially start tomorrow (Wednesday), the past couple days have nevertheless been long and extremely informative. We’ve heard talks on administration and programming, music engraving, and publishing, all of which have been fascinating.

For me, the highlight has been our meetings with the orchestra musicians. We’ve had sessions with representatives from each section in the orchestra: woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and lastly a very helpful session with the orchestra’s harpist.

What struck me most about these sessions was the level of dedication the performers had given to our music before even meeting us. They had all spent considerable time practicing and understanding our pieces, and they had very specific questions and reactions for each of us. It’s very gratifying to know that the musicians want to give the best possible performance of our pieces, even though we’re strangers to them. It gives a collaborative spirit to this event that I think is so valuable and positive.

The musicians also had general tips about composing for their instruments, regardless of what we had written in our pieces. Just to give an example, our meeting with the principal trumpet player, Manny Laureano, made me rethink my approach to using mutes for brass instruments. For readers who are unfamiliar with brass mutes, they are devices (usually made of metal or plastic) inserted into the instrument to change the color of the sound produced. I’ve always been encouraged to experiment with using brass mutes in my compositions, a viewpoint that I still think has value. But Manny played a beautiful solo for us on the un-muted trumpet, and it gave me a renewed appreciation for the instrument’s natural sound. I realized that I neglect to take full advantage of the trumpet’s more lyrical qualities, so that’s something I’ll remember going forward.

And finally, it’s been particularly great to spend time with our composer mentor, Kevin Puts, who brings so much knowledge and insight to our sessions here in Minnesota. He’s a voice of reason and experience in every situation.

Rehearsals start tomorrow, so check back for another update from me in a couple of days!

DAY 3

The past few days of rehearsals have been incredible. Hearing seven pieces come together in three days, we've all been amazed by the dedication and virtuosity of the Minnesota Orchestra. We're a very lucky group of composers! We're also learning from each other in these rehearsals. We each have copies of all seven pieces to look at. Observing rehearsals and studying the scores of my fellow composers has really helped me generate ideas for the piece I'm writing next.

Last night we had a reception with supporters of the orchestra, staff, administrators, and friends from the American Composers Forum and New Music USA. This was a great way to get to know some of the folks who fuel the Composer Institute and have believed in it since the beginning. Maestro Vänskä, President Kevin Smith, and Composer Institute Director Kevin Puts spoke about the program, and the seven of us each gave a short talk about ourselves and our music. Even after hearing my fellow composers' music all week and getting to know them, I learned even more about everyone hearing them speak.

For those reading who don't know me personally, I place a lot of importance on language and words (which is why it's fun to be the blogger for the institute!) and I think it's essential for composers to be able to speak and write about their work. I have to say, I was proud of us last night. Public speaking isn't easy, but I thought we all expressed ourselves articulately and sincerely, giving our audience a more detailed view of where we come from and what inspires our music.

After the speeches, we took some audience questions, and my personal favorite was the question about our musical influences. Anthony Vine talked about being inspired not just by composers from the past and present, but by visual artists as well. The dialogue that can exist among artistic mediums is something I find really fascinating, so I'm glad Anthony brought it up.

The concert is tonight at 8pm! Fred Child from Performance Today will be introducing all of us onstage. Check back next week for a final post from me, reflecting on the whole experience of the composer institute.

 

POSTSCRIPT: Reflections on the 2016 Composer Institute

I've been back home for a few days after a really incredible week in Minneapolis, and this will be my final blog post about the 2016 Composer Institute.

The concert went very well, even better than all of the rehearsals. Seeing the size of the crowd and feeling their enthusiasm for new music was energizing and gratifying for me. After the show, the seven of us along with Maestro Vänskä and Kevin Puts did a Q&A session on stage. We got some great questions, ranging from a detailed inquiry about fugal writing to a question about the role of new music in society.

Afterwards, we had a reception with our family and friends who had attended the concert, plus the artistic team that put the whole week together. It was such a memorable evening—and completely worth the exhaustion I felt when waking at 4am the following morning to fly to Kentucky for my next concert.

I've been reflecting on some of the more specific takeaways I have from the institute, and one has to do with orchestration. Hearing seven diverse pieces come together over the course of the week, I thought a lot about how the orchestra can be used, and I took a lot of notes for future pieces. (Here's one: I think I've been writing for trombones the wrong way this entire time! They have so much melodic potential that I've failed to use in my previous pieces. Something to change going forward.)

My overall impression after this experience is that orchestration is felt just as much as it is heard. For example, I might listen to a phrase and think I'm hearing just a sharp attack to a held note in the flute, but when I look at the score I also see a harp harmonic accenting the front end of the note and a bowed pitch on the vibraphone. Although my ears didn't perceive that distinct combination of instruments, the depth and nuance of the overall sound couldn't have been achieved with flute alone, and only by looking at the score could I realize why.

This is something we certainly learn in school, but a week of hearing new pieces come together in rehearsal definitely solidified this for me. As a listener, I want not just an auditory but also a physical experience while I'm hearing music. Otherwise, what would be the point of live music at all?

To bring this back to more general reflections on the institute, I just want to officially say thanks to Kevin Puts, Osmo Vänskä, Mele Willis, ACF, the development and PR team, and all of our guest speakers and musicians who gave seminars. Not only did I learn a ton, I felt completely taken care of during the week. Every aspect of the institute was expertly organized. Too often composers can feel a bit aimless when coming to our own rehearsals and concerts, since most of our work is done ahead of time. But in Minneapolis, I felt active and that my presence was necessary.

One last thought—I can't say enough for the experience of getting away from daily life by traveling to the institute. Careers in music can look fun or even glamorous from the outside, but as with anything, it's easy to get bogged down in the grinding routine of composing and the stress of impending deadlines. Coming to a program like this one, not only did I get to enjoy a new city and surroundings, but through meeting new composers, mentors and musicians, I felt a renewed appreciation for being a composer in the first place. It was a great reminder of how lucky I am to be living a musical life.

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  • This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
    This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
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    Official Airline of the Minnesota Orchestra