The Anxiety and the Thrill: a Composer at a Premiere

Daniel Nass
Daniel Nass, Composer
Jen Shaffer

"Wow. People still do that?"

In September of 2014, I joined the digital team at Classical Minnesota Public Radio, focusing on music education initiatives. Outside of my work here at MPR, I'm a composer. And when people find out I'm a composer, they're often bewildered at the fact that not all classical music comes from long-dead Europeans, and that there are men and women alive today who are still "doing that."

As a matter of fact, there are.

I was recently commissioned by flutist Nikola Ragusa and his trio, Ecouter Ensemble, to write a new work for "Project Three" — a collaboration between the ensemble and seven composers from around the world. The project involved live performance paired with seven different short films shown simultaneously with each piece. For my project, I wanted to compose music inspired by a Minneapolis location that also inspired Dvořák in his Sonatina in G major — Minnehaha Falls. However, while Dvořák composed on his work on his shirt sleeve, I went the more traditional route and brought a pencil and staff paper.

(Each of the "Project Three" composers was asked to create a short video which provided some insight into our projects — mine can be viewed here.)

After visiting the Falls and noticing they weren't as calm and serene as they typically are, I decided to title the work Nishkaadizi-Nibi — which loosely translated from the Ojibwe language means, "Angry Water." The piece was composed in the spring of 2014, set for a November premiere in New York City, at a small performing space called Spectrum.

Premieres can be a very intense and stressful experience, but at the same time, amazing and wonderful. In a way, I suppose it could be likened to inviting people to meet your newborn baby for the first time (admittedly, I have no children, and perhaps this is a lousy comparison) — but I imagine you're excited for people to meet your baby; you want people to think your baby is cute. It doesn't always work out. Admittedly, I've created some ugly "children" along the way. All composers do.

When it comes to a premiere, I like to sit near the back or near an aisle, in case I need to make a quick getaway. I would never do this, of course, but it's somehow comforting to know that I could if I needed to do so. My piece begins, and it's almost as if entering a meditative state, shutting out any extra noise or activity, focusing intently on what the performers are doing. My heart-rate goes up (possibly fueled by the pre-show double cappuccino I enjoyed, probably not the best idea), palms get clammy … and I listen. I notice things that go really well, I notice things that don't go so well. I take mental notes along the way — ranging from "That worked far better than I expected!" to "Well I'll never try that again." And in a flash … the performance is over.

The premiere of a new piece of music is stressful, anxiety-inducing, exhausting, sometimes painful, always thrilling. And it's one of the greatest, most powerful feelings in the world.

After recent performances in New York City and Boston, Nishkaadizi-Nibi will be performed again during the University of Toronto New Music Festival, Monday, Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m., in Walter Hall at the University of Toronto. A recording will soon be made available at his website.

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