There was an agreement among journalists after about 1970, when America took a sharp turn to the right, to call all music that did not use traditional instruments – the orchestra or combinations of orchestral instruments – “experimental.” This was a greater disappointment to me than most things that journalists do, because it showed a deep misunderstanding of the way things were. There were noble aspirations among a few younger conductors to revive the relationship between the composer and the orchestra, but there were no orchestras to speak of… there were no commissions of the sort that might be valuable to the composer, in the sense that a commission involves some sort of discussion between the composer and the orchestra; and most important of all, there was never any rehearsal time, in case an idea did not work. Orchestra commissions of the time always sounded like they were being sight-read, which in fact they were. I am sorry to say that this is still largely the case….
I think that even for the best composer (better than I am), ideas don’t always work. That is why the orchestra pece without lots of rehearsal is in some way doomed. And dreaded by the composer…
[A] friend told me that a distinguished violinist told him that in his youth he had played La Mer with Ernest Ansermet’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and had remarked to Ansermet that the violin part was not the same that he had known with other orchestras. Ansermet replied that Debussy said that he had always regretted the published violin part, and so with Ansermet’s approval had written a new violin part. (Which one do we hear now?)
So, in this situation it is actually the American orchestra music that is truly “experimental.” When you have thought about other kinds of musical ideas, and worked with, say, electronic music for most of your composing life, the composition is anything but experimental. It is the epitome of expertise. It may be aleatoric or purposefully unpredictable in its specific sounds, or purposefully exploratory of a sound, but experimental is the wrong word, and its use has more or less divided composers among themselves….
It is a problem to write orchestra pieces that can be played after one or two rehearsals. I can’t even learn my own compositions in a six-hour rehearsal. (Recently I was listening to a performance of La Mer on the radio and remarking to myself on its difficulty and it occurred to me that is a composer wrote La Mer today, no orchestra could play it. Not enough rehearsal time.) If it were not for this drastic restriction, orchestras and orchestra literature would not be in such dire straits. And there would probably be a very different idea about electronic music, and so probably a different kind of electronic music….
– Robert Ashley, liner notes to Superior Seven, 1995
In 1997 the American Composers Orchestra, urged by board member Tom Buckner and with evident reluctance, commissioned Bob to write When Famous Last Words Fail You, for singers and orchestra. The orchestra members in the piece are cued by the lead singer’s words, so the conductor merely adjusts volumes, as at a mixing board. Dennis Russell Davies ran through the piece Thursday morning before a Saturday performance. The parts had just been handed out, so everyone was clearly sight-reading. There was a planned meeting afterward to discuss the technique of the piece; that was cancelled. There was a scheduled dress rehearsal; that was cancelled. The performance was the second run-through of a piece that had never been rehearsed, and sounded awful, not at all the way Bob imagined it.
A classical music world that treats great composers that way deserves the worst that can possibly happen to it.