In ten days’ time, after three more rehearsals, the 17-minute piece will be performed for a jury consisting of Steiger and ucsd’s three other composition professors, as well as Harvey Sollberger, conductor of the La Jolla Symphony. Afterwards, all will be free to ask Keller questions. And then he will be graded. In the first two years of the three- to five-year program leading to the doctorate, students must complete two such juried pieces. “They are two hoops you have to jump through,” says second-year student Keller, who has chosen Steiger to work with on both of his compositions.
As the musicians play, Steiger uses his baton to make cool, disciplined, economical gestures — lines of light in the air. It comes as no surprise that his “conducting hero” is the understated Pierre Boulez, who is, like Steiger, a composer first, a conductor second. He says he doesn’t usually use a baton, because Boulez doesn’t. (“Nor does Stephen Mosko, who was my most influential conducting teacher,” says Steiger, who studied with him as a graduate student at the California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia.) But he is using one for Keller’s piece because of the spatial issues. He hopes it gives his arm movements visibility.
There are a lot of starts and stops — during which conductor and composer consult one another — and questions and comments come from the players.
Flutist: “I have too many beats.”
One of the horn players: “Hey, Derek. Stem all the way out?” He is referring to the mute.
“Just like that,” says Keller.
“Be very careful about counting,” says Steiger, “because you’re always in unison with someone.”
“I can’t make the change,” says the clarinet player. “Derek, you haven’t given me enough time to put down one horn and pick up another.” Then later the same player notices, “I’m changing instruments and turning the page.”
There is palpable tension here. Steiger tries for some levity. “Okay, maybe we can hire you an assistant. Or maybe you can whistle that note until you can pick up the other one.”
The pianist plays while holding a pen in his mouth, dagger style; in between playing, he makes notes on his score.
“You missed your measure,” Keller says to one of the trumpet players.
“I already played my measure,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
“We’ll arrange for a wake-up call,” says Steiger.
Flutist: “I have a very bad page turn.”
“Whoops,” says Keller.
“We’ll Xerox it and paste it on,” says Steiger.
When the tenor saxophonist arrives, Steiger helps him get set up.
One of the percussionists stretches her thigh muscles, like a dancer.
About halfway through the piece, Steiger warns, “This is a very tricky section. We’ll take it apart and work on it carefully in one of the next rehearsals.”
At another point, he says, “Just follow; don’t play,” and proceeds to conduct in silence, while he, along with everyone else, turns the noisy pages.
When he calls for a 15-minute break, Keller approaches him, “It was neat to hear all that happen. I mean, that was just, wow.”
Steiger gives him a small, quick smile and hurries down the hall to his office, where the score of his own newly completed composition is waiting for him. On the way, he compares Eruptive Plains to “a film out of focus” — for now. “There was a lot of faking because the musicians hadn’t practiced.” Gradually it will become more focused as the rehearsals progress. He also says that Keller should have scoured his score for mechanical errors. His own manuscript pages are proofed until every part is perfect. “If your rehearsal is only 45 minutes and 15 of them are wasted on typos, you’re dead.” And although he’s clearly annoyed, he reveals that he sees his own younger self in Keller as he recalls, “The same thing happened to me, in 1981.” He was 24 years old. Only it wasn’t a group of university-hired musicians who were vexed by the typos in his marimba concerto. It was the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “And they were really hard on me, and I deserved it.” But he says Keller has probably learned from the experience. He predicts, “It won’t happen again.”
The office is sparsely furnished in Danish modern. One of the few decorations is a framed copy of the famous New York Daily News headline from 1975, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” along with a complementary one from the Village Voice, circa 1986, “New York to the Arts: Drop Dead.” New York City is Steiger’s hometown. There are also some early synthesizers, from the 1970s. One is an ElectroComp 200, owned by Steiger’s wife, Vibeke Sorensen. The 46-year-old video/computer artist used it long ago to create her first video scores. Another of the electronic relics is an Arp 2600, owned by ucsd, which is the same model that Steiger first used, in high school. “They kept it in a closet,” he says. “I spent a lot of hours in that closet.”
On the computer screen is the score, almost ready to be printed. A tricolor representation, it has the notes in black, dynamics in red, text in green. Until about a decade ago, composers wrote their scores by hand, like scribes in monasteries. Says Steiger, who has put in his years doing them the old-fashioned way, “It was like drafting. You had to use mechanical pencils.” An electric eraser was needed to correct mistakes. It could take all day to do one page. “And to get people to take your work seriously, it not only had to sound good, it had to look good too.” Now a computer program makes the job easier, but it is still painstaking.
In a makeshift archive — a jumble of cardboard boxes — he has some of his early, hand-copied scores. One is his first piece that was ever recorded, when he was 27. It’s called Hexadecathlon. “I was obsessed with the number 16,” he says, “because of its symmetrical properties of division. And I was familiar with hexadecimal numbers, because of my work in early computer music. In those days you had to program in machine code that involved using base 16 numbers. So 16 became the magic number of the piece — 16 sections, 16-note melodies, 16 in whatever other ways it was possible for me to embed it. Also, it was 1984, an Olympics year, and I had composed a very difficult virtuosic part for the soloist. So I thought of the decathlon. But since in this case there were 16 ‘events,’ it would be a hexadecathlon.”