When intuition drives the car. And the composition.

by Artist Development Fellow

Zachary Sheets ’13, a resident of Pforzheimer House concentrating in Music, Romance Languages and Literatures, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to pursue composition study at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival. Sheets is a member of the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra (co-principal flute and piccolo), and Dunster House Opera orchestra. He has had compositions performed by the Bach Society Chamber Orchestra and Brattle Street Chamber Players and was the winner of the Bach Society Orchestra’s Composition Competition in 2010 and 2012. He is President of the Harvard University Composer’s Association which recently produced the "New Music Week" at Paine Hall. After post-graduate study at a music conservatory he plans to become a composer and orchestral flutist. This is part 2. Go to part 1.

I should, by all accounts, be exhausted. (Well, to be fair, I am. But I’ll blame that on jet lag for now).

Instead, though, I’m more excited to make music than I’ve ever been.

At the end of my last post, I had just finished my time at a contemporary music festival in Italy and returned home after study at the Summer Academy of the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria.

The Mozarteum is Salzburg’s conservatory, named after its most famous resident. Each summer the academy draws students from all over the world. There were many students from Austria and Germany, of course, a bunch from Italy and Spain, a good deal from Korea and Japan, as well as Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Russia and Crete. Though classes were taught (mostly!) in English, as the common language, I was the only native English speaker in both the composition and flute classes.

While there, I had daily composition courses with the French composer Pascal Dusapin. He has made his career almost exclusively through performances, commissions and residencies, not through any kind of stable teaching work. This is quite rare, especially in the U.S., and gives him an interesting perspective. Practically, that means he has to be very focused on the realities of working with performers on a regular basis. Getting good performances has been essential to making his career, not just for his notoriety, but also simply to pay the rent.

Dusapin is very focused on methods of and decisions related to notation. Limited rehearsal time with professional orchestras often leaves little time to adjust mistakes or misunderstandings; if you want to get to big picture ideas in your 30-minute dress rehearsal, don’t spend 20 minutes of it explaining something complicated that could have been written in a very-straightforward way. People often assert a lot of their own musical theories or ideas or predilections into the way they notate music, so it’s good to have a reality check, often, into what is clear and what is needlessly confusing when performers have the music in front of them. It’s a very pragmatic way of looking at things, but a little pragmatism can go a long way with getting at the real meaningful part of your art.

With me, Dusapin talked about my relationship to my own intuition in my writing. With the first piece I shared (the string quartet from my previous blog), he spent about an hour analyzing the piece in front of the class as though it were someone else’s music. I had never had this done to my music before, and I realized a lot about my working process. For example, I do some things through intuition that can work pretty well, even if I’m not aware of it. Other times, some things that I think are painfully clear in a piece’s construction don’t come through at all.

I also realized that some elements I thought were essential come through as little effects and decorations, while some things I tossed off more absent-mindedly have a huge impact on the overall perception. Dusapin’s point, essentially, was that intuition is very successful for certain things (in my case, melodic writing, harmonic language, rhythm or meter), but it’s good to have some regulation and awareness so that you can do what you’re doing not just at a certain time, but throughout the whole piece.

See, intuition’s great from moment to moment (deciding whether to go left or right to find the gas station at the highway offramp), but not so good at managing a long-term plan (getting from here to Salzburg without buying tickets). Trying to "intuit" the scale and pacing of a piece, even something as short as a few minutes, is simply too much information and detail for most peoples’ brains to process in any meaningful way.

[Caption: Composition seminar. Zach Sheets '13, left and standing, composer Pascal Dusapin, left and sitting]

[Caption: The Wiener Saal where Zach Sheets '13 performed Hindemith]