Teachers are vital. Without them, progress would be like a needle at the end of a record, endlessly skipping back. Thankfully, they do exist. More than that, advances in technology have allowed them to do so in numerous new guises that go beyond the chalk-in-hand stereotype that so quickly comes to mind.
One individual working in this vein is my friend and absolutely brilliant harpist, Olivia Jageurs, a fellow RAM graduate who played harp with the London Philharmonic Orchestra when they premiered my work, Our Own Light.
On 1 February, she launched a new project called “15 second harp,” whose goal was to “to create a sharing platform for composers and harpists to try out ideas, techniques and pedaling, with near instant feedback.” As someone whose music simply could not exist without collaboration with a trusted instrumentalist (or four), I was thrilled.
In late February, I wrote Olivia a “little roast of a 15 seconds” (her words), called , considering. I can’t say I set out to write something quite so difficult, but, as has been the case more often than not lately, it was:
Original score I sent to Olivia.
A funny thing about composition is that you never quite know what you’re going get when a performer first attempts to play your work. Try as I might to think through all possible options, and issues, and interpretations, something always manages to surprise me.
In this piece, it was the question of timbre and dynamics. Here, as in all my scores, I tried to be as clear and precise as possible. I wrote a note about pedal slides, and articulations, and had detailed dynamics marked throughout. I thought I had the perfect score. Unfortunately, what you say isn’t always what is communicated. (General life lesson? I think so.)
What I missed was that most musicians typically like to sound good when playing their instrument (i.e. no random buzzing) and that my dynamics were all but touching the top staff (consequently implying that they applied only there) – oops! But the beauty of collaboration and Olivia’s “15 second harp” project was that I got to find this out and fix the issue. By adding a clarifying note regarding the dynamics and adding little ‘z’s to the stems of notes where I explicitly wanted buzzing, I was able get the intention and the interpretation all on the same page. It was a little fix, but as Olivia put it ‘it is funny how the smallest notation edits can make such a difference!’ She even re-recorded the revised version!
Stated simply, it may sound like a trifle. But when one takes a moment to consider the fact that I, a composer in Minnesota, was able to workshop a piece with Olivia, an immensely talented and sympathetic harpist in London, without leaving my house and then share it with the world for both musical and educational purposes (no chalk required), it becomes nothing short of a miracle.
It takes a moment to step away from the assumed given of an interconnected world, but it really is amazing (THIS!).
Needless to say, it’s an exciting time to learn.