Mistakes Were Made

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to attend quite a few performances of my music in the last year or so. It’s always a treat to sit in the audience and listen to the familiar notes unfold, only now with the added personality and spin the individual performers bring to it. It’s not as much of a treat to listen to the occasional wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong entrances or wrong tempos.

Despite the talent and dedication of the performers, errata do creep in. Sometimes they’re unnoticeable to anyone other than the composer (and presumably—hopefully—the performer in question); sometimes they’re fairly flagrant and difficult to ignore. (It’s not a good sign when the first thing a performer says to you after a concert is “Sorry!”)

Sometimes mistakes just happen, no matter how well-prepared a performer is. But new music, particularly down at the grass roots where no one’s getting paid very much, if at all, is often under-rehearsed. And, by definition, new music is, well, new. It’s not going to have the same challenges the performers spent years on as they were growing up learning their instruments. It’s not going to be “in the ear.”

Last week saw the world premiere of my saxophone quartet Ruck by the Dave Noland Saxophone Quartet. I went to a rehearsal with them the day before the premiere; they’re terrific players, and were giving the piece a fantastic ride. But there was one difficult section, full of mixed meters and unpredictable entrances (from about 45″ in to about 1’45”) in the video, below) where they kept not all getting to the end at the same time. Derailment. They worked on it a fair amount while I was there, and assured me they’d work on it again in the morning before the 1 pm concert, and sure enough, in performance they nailed it. A couple of other moments were slightly off—but nothing that detracted from the flow of the music, and what turned out to be a very exciting performance.

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Most errata don’t affect the overall way the piece works. (Thank goodness for that—lord knows I’ve played enough wrong notes while performing my own music.) You never know whether even a serious error is going to affect the audience’s perception of the performance. I’ve had performances I was sure had been ruined by incorrect tempos receive rapturous responses; I’ve had a simple counting mistake in the final bar make an otherwise successful performance land with a wet thud.

But it’s a real issue for composers. One colleague of mine told me that he made it a point never to write anything that couldn’t be sight-read. I can’t seem to bring myself to do that, but there’s always the question, “Is my music too hard?” You wouldn’t think so—we’ve all been to immaculate performances of extremely difficult music. I’ve been to immaculate performances of Elliott Carter string quartets, for cryin’ out out loud—if musicians can play that, how hard can my stuff be?

Come to think of it, though, if there were mistakes in a performance of an Elliott Carter string quartet, how would I know? They’re complicated enough that they sound completely new to me every time I hear them anyway. What makes a performance seem immaculate is the performers’ conviction, not their accuracy. That’s where the magic happens, if it happens. And if I had to choose between a committed but inaccurate performance and an accurate but lackluster one, I know which I’d pick.


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