"OA1" is what it read on the board at the opera house in Gera, Germany. Orchester Allein One.
The first orchestral rehearsal of my ballet, Waiting Room, took place a few days ago. Experiencing a live orchestra is always unique - in this case, around 50 players in a beautiful concert hall, (which doubles as the rehearsal space for the Thüringen Philharmonie) all coming together to create music under the direction of their conductor. And due to logistics - most often cost inevitably - rehearsals with a full orchestra are massively precious.
Waiting Room has five 'orchestra alones' - each one, two and a half hours long. That might sound like a lot, but for well over 80 minutes of music, it doesn't actually equate to many run-throughs, let alone detailed examinations, of the nineteen movements that correspond to the different choreographic scenes. For after the OAs, the dancers join in for another set of five rehearsals, and after that... well, the audience join in for the premiere!
My main angst in the very first rehearsal, was actually over the musical equivalent of spelling mistakes. For however well one proofreads a score that is 245 pages long, there will always be something awry. Fortunately the relentless proofreading that my assistant and I did, paid off. (Major plaudits to Chris Warner for his epic dedication to preparing such handsome parts) Now admittedly the English horn player was a little distressed that her big solo in For the love of a wheelie dog had accidentally been replaced with 50 bars of rest but other than that, I was able to get stuck into the subtleties fairly immediately - adjusting some of the colouring and revising dynamics and articulation to suit the specific players and live sound I was hearing and also to begin getting across my overall rhythmic vision for the piece.
There was much anticipation - not least from me - over how the computer that I have added to the orchestra, would gel with fifty acoustic instruments. It always seemed a perfectly natural thing to put a computer at the centre of my symphony orchestra. Call me a charlatan media composer writing art music, but without music technology, this ballet would not have been possible. Don't get me wrong, I have a good grasp of theory - enough to get me through a Masters at the Royal College of Music at any rate - but technology is fundamentally enabling, and allows us to work at speeds that would otherwise be impossible.
This is merely the practical side of music technology. More important is the infinite creative freedom it affords, and the fascinating opportunities to blend traditional and ultra-modern textures. Hearing it all together for the first time, it certainly felt like the ultimate in analogue versus digital.
Silvana Schröder was just finishing her choreography and I was lucky enough to witness a little of this creative process. I watched her choreograph the one purely sound effects-based piece in the ballet, which will remain as is - prerecorded and without orchestra. This meant that for once, my mind was not distracted by how we might milk every little bit out of the live musical performance, and it left me free to mull the choreographic process.
I noted many similarities to composition, or more specifically orchestration - although this was a much more public version than in the solitary life of a composer. Individual dancers felt like specific sonic themes, or musical notes even. They wait patiently as the idea develops from being purely in Silvana's head to its arrival onto the stage- almost like an unusual or surprising chord waiting for its moment during an evolving harmonic motion.
The dancers became rhythmic cells of movement, then groups of those cells, with Silvana making them interact with each other, often in counterpoint, or canon, sometimes in unison. The leading dancers would perhaps provide a solo line over this movement texture- just as individual instruments would over an orchestra.
Furthermore the choreography matches, reflects, reinterprets and reprises just like musical material does in any number of classical forms - a sonata or a toccata and fugue perhaps - but the currency instead of being the twelve notes of the scale, is movement. And to move the analogy to man-versus-machine, Silvana's two assistants, Maud and Marian, rapidly and expertly note down every movement and nuance, so it can be immediately danced again- just as my computer sequencer would immediately play back my latest composition.
The next excitement is to move music rehearsals from a hugely reverberant hall to the dry orchestra pit, which will inevitably create many new questions regarding ensemble, texture and colour. And then there is the small matter of putting the twenty-two dancers together with the orchestra. With all the stage crew as well, that means around one hundred simultaneous moving parts.
The premiere is fast approaching.
Find Part 1 of How to Write a Ballet here. And Part 3 will be my reflections on the Premiere. I wish everyone "Toi Toi Toi!"