The First Time
One of the most common questions I'm asked immediately after a performance is this: What's it like to hear your music for the first time?
This always feels a bit like a trick question to me, because I get several chances to hear my music for the “first” time. There's the first time a bit of music occurs to me in the composition process, followed by hearing it in a final draft, after much editing and revising. There's hearing the piece in rehearsal for the first time, too.
But when people ask what it feels like to hear my music for the first time, they usually mean the concert itself, and the short answer is that it usually feels wonderful. The much more accurate answer is that, at a premiere, I am almost uncomfortably hyper-attuned to every single detail. It's incredibly overstimulating. My mind races with thoughts I can only try to control: Everyone looks nervous. Why are they nervous? It sounded great in rehearsal! That part wasn't as good as it was in rehearsal. Did I let this slow section go on for too long? Oh, that section was great! I love this ensemble. Someone's fussing with a candy wrapper—do they hate this piece? Ooh, that part was actually really good. I love this piece! Almost done, almost—oh no, no no no, that incredibly loud cough during the final chord is definitely going to be on the recording. Well, that piece was okay. Good performance. Time to walk onstage. Don't trip, don't trip, don't trip...
It's as if I'm a highly sensitive microphone designed to pick up even the smallest disturbance around me. I don't usually get nervous before a premiere, or at least I don't get nervous the way I do when I'm performing. But even if this hyper-awareness isn't nerves, exactly, I'm still stuck with it for the duration of the piece. My skin prickles. I feel vulnerable and exposed, and every sensation is heightened.
I often cite the way it feels to hear my own music premiered as one of the reasons I've chosen to be a composer. What I've described, though, is definitely not the reason I chase that feeling. Who would purposefully seek out the feeling of being uncomfortably vulnerable?
There's something else there, too, and that other feeling is joy. It mixes with a hyper-awareness of time passing, and that joy becomes heightened, too. At any premiere, even one that doesn't quite go as expected, an idea that previously existed only in my head suddenly lives outside of me. Through the alchemy of live performance, all that vulnerability and awareness of time and joy adds up to feeling incredibly present and lucky to be here, to be alive.
That heightened joy is unlike any other feeling I've experienced in my life. In a way, elements of feeling vulnerable and hyper-aware are similar to watching my close friends or piano students perform, and the joy is similar to the happiness I feel watching any outstanding performance. But something sets a premiere apart. I imagine that performers and conductors experience a similar feeling when they perform at their highest level, but I've only ever gotten that feeling from composing. Maybe it's the spontaneity of never quite being able to predict what the piece will sound like live, even—especially—when the dress rehearsal has gone perfectly.
That feeling is addictive. Experiencing the first polished premiere of my original music at age seventeen, as that feeling hit for the first time, I knew my decision to pursue music in college and beyond was the right one. Of course, when you're a teenager, most emotions feel momentous—your inner experiences are heightened, your world still full of firsts. But the truth is that even now, attending a premiere of my music, I still feel that way. That feeling hits just as hard now as it did at seventeen. Even at a less-than-ideal performance, I still feel hyper-sensitive, vulnerable, and grateful to be alive.
I think I'm asked so often what it feels like to experience a premiere because an audience will never truly hear a piece as its own composer does. Of course, the irony of this is that a composer never gets to hear their piece for the “first time” as the audience does, either. Just as we can never recreate the experience of watching a movie or reading a book for the first time, a composer never gets to hear a premiere without knowing what music comes next. But there's a different suspense inherent in not knowing exactly what will happen next in any live performance. That spontaneity, combined with the potential for immense joy, is the reason we all attend live concerts, whether we've written the music or not.
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Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 3, Spring 2018