The tenor saxophone player is missing. While someone tries to call him on a cell phone, the horn players clear their throats and the other ensemble members make the familiar, cacophonous sounds of musical instruments warming up. Rand Steiger, composer, conductor, computer musician, is today conducting a rehearsal of a composition by one of his Ph.D. students in the music department at UCSD. Slender, still youthful at age 43, he wears black jeans, rimless blue-tinted glasses, and a blue button-down shirt, which he removes. Underneath is a gray T-shirt with Minneapolis Sculpture Garden printed across its back. When word comes that the saxophonist has a conflict — he’s at another student’s rehearsal — Steiger decides to start without him. In his hand is a baton made of plastic, nearly transparent, no bigger than a chopstick.
It’s been said of conducting that there is no profession that an impostor could enter more easily. Only since the mid-19th Century, when composers’ scores became so complicated that unguided orchestras found them difficult to play, has it been a profession for anyone. A conductor’s characteristic gestures can be learned by most people who try, it is agreed. In fact, each spring Steiger teaches a required graduate course in conducting, Music 228. The rest, as it is with any art, is something else again.
“There is a complexity to the psychology of conducting well, in the relationship of the conductor to orchestra,” Steiger says. “Good conductors must develop good rapport. They must be able to offer constructive criticism and to communicate it concisely. They need to know what they want and how to ask for it. They need leadership skills.”
Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian who won the 1981 Nobel Prize in literature, has written, “Someone who knew nothing about power could discover all its attributes, one after another, by careful observation of a conductor.” And it’s true, says Steiger, that a conductor must assert his authority. But he shuns the hierarchical “conductor-is-boss” model, as well as the conductor cult of personality. A testy Toscanini, who notoriously pummeled performers and snapped violinists’ bows, is far from Steiger’s quietly assertive, soft-spoken style. While he stresses that his “responsibility is always first to the music” and that he needs to do what he must to “protect” it, he favors a cooperative approach and is careful to be respectful of his musician-colleagues. He hopes the respect is mutual. When Steiger is in an audience, he says, he can tell when the musicians personally like the conductor and are playing for him rather than merely going through the motions. He hears “a genuine difference in sound,” although he acknowledges that “only really experienced listeners, very familiar with the music, would notice.” What truly great conductors do cannot be taught: “They get the orchestra to believe in the music.” They are, in a word, inspiring. “And when a group of a hundred people get inspired together, extraordinary things can happen.”
Only 13 people will play the student piece, Eruptive Plains, written by 28-year-old Derek Keller, of Atlanta, Georgia, who sits at a table against the wall, looking over his score for the last time before the first time he will hear it played. But the challenge for Steiger is the same. “We’ll go through the whole piece, get familiar with how it works,” he tells them.
It won’t be easy. In experimenting with spatial sound — moving the music around the room — Keller has called for an unconventional physical arrangement of the players. His design separates them into three ensembles. That will make it difficult for Steiger to give cues. Usually, no matter how large an ensemble, the performers are clustered together so the conductor can make eye contact with them. Often all a player needs is a glance to give him or her the confidence that this is the right place in the music and the beats have been counted correctly. Big demonstrative cues — pointing, for example — are usually unnecessary. In this case, however, Steiger will frequently need to turn one way and another, like an onlooker at a tennis match. Sometimes he won’t have time to turn; the moment will have passed before his head can swivel. Or two players needing cues simultaneously will be on opposites sides. He tells the musicians — graduate students, faculty, and freelancers, all of them hired by UCSD for the occasion — that they’ll “have to cope with the issue of cueing.”
Then he says, “Let’s read a bit,” as he snaps his fingers to denote the meter. The complicated tempos of contemporary music, much more than the meters of Mozart, demand the services of a conductor.
The opening is reminiscent of thunder moving across the plains of an imaginary country. The sound is made in part by one percussion player’s kettle drum fading into the other’s, on the opposite side of the room. When the pianist begins to play, he seems to be imitating the percussionists. At the same time, mournful sounds are coming from the brass instruments, trombones and muted horns, while the flute adds lift, literally — birdlike. Taken together, it evokes a feeling of open space, the bigness of the Great Plains, of the whole country, animated by life.
“It came to me two years ago,” Keller will say afterwards, “when I was moving across the country [from Georgia to California], driving across flat Texas all day, and then I woke up the next morning and still had more of Texas to go. So that when New Mexico came, with those geographical constructions on the landscape, it was very welcome.” He says the piece follows a pattern of three times reaching a new plateau, a new place. These three processes, as he calls them, feature parts for clarinet, trombone, and flute. Each plateau comes after a metaphorical gentle sloping upward. “Each time, the musical material is transformed by a disturbance, undergoes a change.” And it’s easy to see how a young composer might create such a piece after making a momentous change in his own life.