Hello from the United Club Lounge in the Denver airport. My second string quartet had its world premiere last night on the Aspen Music Festival's opening concert. The piece was co-commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Harvard Musical Association, and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I'm between connections, traveling home. It's just over twenty years since I first attended this festival as a student. Here are some impressions of returning as an Artist-in Residence, jotted down during my four-day 2018 visit to Aspen, Colorado.
First night back in Aspen. Softness of the air, white glow of moonlight, rushing of Hunter Creek. Some places haven’t changed (Carl’s Pharmacy, Explore Bookshop); some are gone completely (a bakery on the corner where we used to get coffee, now boarded up). The gentleness of far-away times wafts in on the wind. The anxieties of those times -- the falling apart from within - -are entirely supplanted by new pressures and joys. I feel awe that my 22-year-old self developed her craft in this place. Sweetness, simplicity; learning discipline; taking the time to dream.
First full day, early morning. Days here start with fresh musical ideas in formation as a physical force, particles gathering. An urge to exceed yourself, prompted by the energizing rigours of the altitude and mountain air. Far from the judgements of any school or university, the aura and rush of being artistically free and the illusion of realizability without the normal drudgery, the daily hard working-out of details. I perceive the spirits of animals and plants around, trees that were growing long before I was ever here. A sense of the sacred everywhere. A church on one of the side streets in town in which I started to compose. I was practicing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano and suddenly thought – why can’t I do this? Every composer has a moment like this. The church sanctuaries where I used to work surreptitiously and undisturbed have been refurbished and refreshed, and are now locked.
A practice room at the music school. So many beautiful new rooms! They have just moved in the pianos and tuned them. The festival is about to begin, and in two days my new work Imprimatur, which I have yet to hear in the flesh, will be premiered on the first concert of the season, a recital by the Jupiter String Quartet -- but for now, everything stands silent and ready. A gorgeous Steinway Grand in the practice room, perfectly in tune. I take out the piece that I am working on -- a different piece than the one to be premiered here, but with a deadline hovering. I play it though in its entirety, letting it tell me what it needs in the final section. It tells me it needs an opening-up, an absence of complications. Don’t overcomplicate when you don’t know what to do. Finding an idea that I might not have allowed myself hear in another context, I wonder if it will stand up the next time that I work on this.
Afternoon of the first full day. The sun is so hot, and the students so young. My relationship with this generation is vital, but still in formation. How to help them find direction? I need to figure out what to say about my piece when I walk onstage in Harris Hall before it is played. There are parts of us that only god can see or touch…in the intimacy of experiencing them through music (or possibly through prayer), they show us who we are – they lead us to who we are supposed to be. Something I learned here, but needed to prove to myself. I am walking everywhere here in Aspen. I want to walk more, but the altitude is hitting me hard.
I meet the Jupiter String Quartet and we rehearse together. They commissioned this work from me through reputation only - -I have written one string quartet before this one. We've only worked together virtually, via rehearsal videos and phone calls. They sound stunning in person! My new piece is a suite in five minutes with a recitative and a coda -- in seven sections, performed with out pause so that it makes a continuous form. The Jupiters bring to the table a distinctive energy and sound, string-playing expertise that helps realize my vision, great communication, and a phenomenal rehearsal dynamic; I bring a clear vision for what I want, to which they are entirely open, so it is a perfect loop. At home I’m helping my daughter learn violin, experiencing in a new way how string technique is built up from scratch, which intensifies makes my appreciation. I am shocked when someone in the ensemble makes a mistake –these players hardly ever mess up! I wish that I could bottle this synergy for later, for the inevitable times of resistance. What if this never comes my way again?
Day number two, early morning. I set out in search of a huge old tree at the music school where I used to go every year and make wishes. I will note disclose here just what the wishes were, only that they came true. Never told anyone about it, but I promised myself that if I ever returned to Aspen, I would find the Wishing-Tree and re-enact this secret ritual. I scour the music school campus for the gargantuan trunk and roots, but the tree isn't where I'm certain it was. I only find gorgeous new buildings. They have kept a lot of the beautiful nature around as they have re-envisioned the school as a commodious, airy and bright campus, and in the process they have cut the old tree down. I choose a new tree in the same general area as a new wishing-tree. My prayers this time are both more concrete and more fleeting.
Dress rehearsal in Harris Hall, day three. I know every passageway, every alcove backstage from my time serving on the stage crew in these buildings. So much music heard here; the crackling of sonic possibility everywhere. The subtlety of my own piece heard from the back of the hall; I am walking around during the run-through to hear it from different places: I hope it reaches back here. I ask the quartet to phrase in longer phrases. They ask: “is there anywhere specific where we are NOT doing this?” No, it’s just an ineffable thing that players always need to strive for further in my music -- to feel together. Something essential is affirmed listening to the fifth movement of Imprimatur, when a song of gratitude becomes a Quodlibet as previous material comes back, layered over it, opening up into lapidary contrapuntal splendour. You can’t get up in the morning and write things that are spiritually motivated; you can only create the conditions and be a vessel. The Quodlibet was like a gift, a breath from heaven. Yes, I had to hone it once the material and method presented themselves, but I was only a servant at best. I want to tell the younger composers not to be so focused on being “career” composers -- that will come, if the deeper things are in the right place.
It’s the night of the concert. I am nervous as all hell backstage, consumed by a self-doubt that knaws at my insides. I can barely speak. But when I go out onstage there is no hint of nervousness and I feel strong, rooted, relaxed, focused, radiant. No trace of who I was twenty years ago, yet somehow all of this is informed by it. I thank the audience for witnessing the birth of this new work, feeling their energy loop back. I remember Melanie Shoenberg and I as composition students here, practicing our spoken introductions for each other outside Harris Hall before our pieces were played. Although fifteen minutes long, the string quartet feels short. I have told the audience that it is like seven thoughts that flow into one another; this seems to help them understand. Then I told them to forget everything that I said and enjoy the melodies. The Jupiter Quartet’s performance is assured, lucid, confidence-inspiring. The form is clear and the timing good. The Quodlibet shines. The crowd loves it.
Last day, the morning after the premiere, at the Aspen airport. The plane is taking off in the wind, shuddering. I feel queasy. Splendour of trees and rocks as we lift up out of the mountains; brighter sunlight than I’ve ever seen; jarring, shaking, pressure of the air all around. I wonder what will happen if the plane goes down. What would it feel like? I realize that I don’t care. I feel happy in a way that I’ve never felt. I feel immensely humble and like God at the same time. The new work has been born, people have apprehended it; it is not going away. It would live on without me. That’s all you can hope for. I can't wait to come back to this festival. The postcard to Adele Addison, my Aspen voice teacher, who's in New York! I forgot to mail it - maybe there are mailboxes in Denver. My daughter isn’t with me on this trip. Soon my ears will hear her bell-clear voice intoning, "Mom". What would become of her if this plane went down? What parts of me would she keep? At six and a half she would miss me terribly, but I've given her a strong foundation, and she's just at the point where she could blossom without me. But wait: There is the next premiere -- that unfinished piece with its culminative section waiting to be honed -- and that can only be done by me.