I have premiered many works over my career as a soloist and as a ensemble player. Performing brand new music is a skill set apart from normal horn playing skill sets, as there is no performance history for the new piece! This generates a great opportunity to play beyond the notes and bring a piece to life. If the premiere is recorded, your decisions will likely influence every performance of the piece from that point forward. It’s a huge responsibility! From my recent residency with the University of Hawaii, I thought of these tips for performing brand new works.
1: Maintain an Open Mind
There really haven’t been many times that I’ve received music for a new work and thought “Gee, this is really great!” There is a reason that that new music hasn’t been written yet, and it’s mostly because there is some difference from the norm. We naturally often don’t like that. Spend a few days with the piece before running back to the composer with questions and try to marinate on what’s been written. Work on a few passages and put them together. I’ve always found that pieces grow on me a whole lot with familiarity.
2: Find Opportunities for Musical Moments
A new piece of music with no recording can be awfully daunting. The entire work could be quite difficult for a variety of reasons- it could be challenging technically, harmonically, or in form. I’ve never found a piece of music that doesn’t have at least a few moments that are very clear in how they speak to you. Identify those moments and ask yourself how to sell that moment best. Then, ask how to set up those moments for success in the music before and after.
3: Don't Settle for Directionless Playing
My editions of Mozart horn concertos have very few dynamics or articulation markings- back in the day, players weren’t told exactly how to play each note! That doesn’t mean that brilliant recordings of Mozart are flat and directionless, without gesture and flare. If a composer hasn’t given you a lot to work with in terms of instruction (dynamics, articulation, phrase…), it remains your responsibility to bring that work to life. Add! I’ve never met a composer who didn’t love that I was doing something. Plenty don’t always like the direction, and will ask you for something different, but music is a team sport.
4: Communicate, But Don't Grovel
On the topic of music being a team sport, talk. I love sending videos to composers of my playing, meeting with them, and asking them questions. Learning more about the composer’s thoughts and attitudes will help inform your decision making. At the risk of offending the composers reading this, I’ve found some of them to be a bit shy, and occasionally withhold information. I gave a performance of a piece, where the composer came up to me and THEN told me a beautiful story about a couple that had inspired them to write the piece. Had I known, I would have been able to much more easily inform my performance! Tell the composer what you’re doing and be an active participant in the creation of the music. It’s just paper until you play it.
5: The Music Isn’t Enough
I’m going to write a whole post on this someday. From my talking with singers, I’ve come to believe that just the music isn’t enough. We have a lot of tools to emote with, including positioning, posture, and expression. If you’re doing new music premieres, you must strive to master the music enough so you can pull back beyond the notes and be able to globally emote and act with the piece. There are plenty of exceptions to this, but the general mindset stands.
I am a huge fan of working with new composers and if you have a new piece in mind for horn and electronics, I’d love to work with you! If you’d like to learn more about writing for Brian KM horn and live electronics, please head on over to my “Writing for Brian KM Page”- I can’t wait to hear from you!