An Algorithmic, Emotional New World

“It’s not enough to slow down. You have to relax your soul, then it becomes organic.”

Sound like a yoga class? That’s music director Julia Tai, guiding the musicians of Philharmonia Northwest through their first rehearsal of this concert cycle as they prepare their season finale: a trio of immersive works spanning 250 years.

For Sunday’s concert, Julia has chosen music that looks into the future: a world premiere by Seattle composer David Schneider, computation[0]: algorithmic thoughts of the electric brain for amplified orchestra, and Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, “From the New World,” signifying the beginning of a new era for the orchestra.

Dipping into the past, the program continues with an unusual pairing of concerto instruments in Michael Haydn’s Duo Concertante for Viola and Organ, with soloists Mara Gearman (viola) and Leslie Martin (organ).

Mara Gearman and Leslie Martin rehearse Haydn's Duo Concertante at North Seattle College.
Mara Gearman and Leslie Martin rehearse Haydn’s Duo Concertante.

Philharmonia Northwest has a 40-year history of producing high-quality concerts and promoting local composers and performers. The musicians have an unmistakable common love and passion for music that is shared by all.

When I ask Julia what she is most looking forward to about this concert, she mentions the beautiful program and wonderful soloists – and the challenges around computation[0], a minimalist piece structured around four sorting algorithms. [Listen here]

“Since I’m not a computer person, David had to explain to me how sorting algorithms work and how the piece was composed to illustrate these processes,” she says. “Working on David’s piece is something new for the orchestra. It requires a different mindset and musical discipline. But we like challenges and learning new things all the time. It expands our horizon and improves our musical skills.”

Julia explains that the piece is difficult because it is very minimalistic – there are repeated musical patterns and slight changes with each repetition. The music then changes and morphs over time (a technique developed mostly by John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). There are also passages that use the Hocket technique, where each group of instruments plays alternating notes that make up a melody. It is extremely difficult to be precise on those fast notes and rests.

Philharmonia Northwest rehearses 'computation[0]' at North Seattle College.
Rehearsing ‘computation[0]’ at North Seattle College.
Algorithms might seem like a strange muse for an orchestral work, but like other sources of creative inspiration – nature, people, history – algorithms are part of daily life. And they are on David’s mind. For the past year and a half, he’s been on the path to becoming a software developer – and has been devoting most of his energies to learning programming and the math and computer science upon which modern software is built.

“In addition to the fact that algorithms help power the technology I – like just about everybody in our society – use every day, I’ve gotten to know some of them much better in the recent past,” he says. “The thinking required for understanding and applying algorithms is quite abstract, and it occurred to me that music might actually be a very good medium for expressing such abstraction. So in part, this piece is an attempt to capture the logical processes that go on in the ‘mind’ of a computer and convey them to an audience in a way that’s understandable on an intuitive level.”

When David joined for the orchestra’s fourth rehearsal, he heard computation[0] live for the first time – toes tapping, score open, his face a mask of mild concentration. I watched, wondering what it’s like to experience your creation coming to life.

Composer David Schneider looks on as he hears computation[0] live for the first time.
Composer David Schneider follows along in the score as he hears ‘computation[0]’ live for the first time.
“The first time hearing a piece in rehearsal is always an interesting experience, and with an orchestral piece, it tends to be a bit of a blur,” David says. “I try to take in as much as I can, but it’s difficult, because there’s so much going on. What I’m mainly concerned with is: Can I hear the musical narrative unfolding the way I intended?”

Micro-negotiations unfold after the orchestra plays through David’s piece. The opening section needs more trombone. The woodwinds can’t be heard. (In fact, this is a feature of the rehearsal space, which absorbs their sound entirely.) And then there is some rethinking of whether to use the shaker or a different type of percussion.

Philharmonia NW

David explains later why this process is necessary.

“Sometimes in writing a piece there are details that I’m not quite sure about,” he says. “I’ll wonder if maybe I actually want the glockenspiel an octave higher. Or I might worry that I have too many instruments playing a particular line, and maybe they’ll overpower the other parts. The truth is, while I think I have a pretty good sense of how things will sound, there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty, particularly in the way a large number of instruments sound when playing together. And there are other variables that add to this uncertainty, since, for instance, every performer is different, and every space is different.”

Occasionally, David will write something one way but also have in mind one or more alternatives in case it doesn’t work quite the way he wanted.

Julia explains that many composers like to make changes to their work on an ongoing basis, from small changes like dynamic marks to bigger ones like cutting out a few bars. Composers throughout history have done this too, making changes or creating different versions during rehearsal cycles or for different concerts or orchestras.

Philharmonia Northwest rehearses at North Seattle College.

With less than a week to go before this concert, I wonder: At what point do you put down the pencil?

Says David: “If there’s enough rehearsal time, I might ask the performers to try an alternative, but typically these changes are quite small, because it would be extremely impractical to make major changes to the piece at that stage.”

Says Julia: “That’s the beauty and fun about working with living composers! We can have a dialogue on the music, exchange ideas, edit some parts of the music or instruments, and be in the exciting process of creating something new that no one has ever played before!”

Any collaboration between composer and musician produces a work of art that is greater than the sum of its parts; in an orchestral work, the composer has a vision, the conductor communicates that vision to the players, and the players bring it to life. All of these moving parts come together to create a conversation between composer, musician, and audience whenever a piece is performed.

“We can’t forget that music is a living art that breathes and changes, and it can sound very different with different players too,” Julia says. “This is why live music is so amazing. You have to be in the moment to experience it!”

julialaughing
Music director Julia Tai.


Philharmonia Northwest will perform Schneider, Haydn, and Dvorak at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church at 2:30pm on Sunday, April 24, 2016. For details and tickets, click here.

Would your ensemble like to be featured on the Live Music Project? Drop us a note at info@livemusicproject.org. All photos © 2016 by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.