GNE Artistic Director and Conductor Armando Bayolo founded the group ten years ago, and as its founder has served both as its artistic head and conductor as well as wearing many other administrative hats. In those capacities, he’s had the opportunity both to lead and to listen to both his own and others’ compositions, and we asked him what it feels like to experience the process on both sides of the podium as a composer and the leader of a performing arts group. Here’s what he had to say:
It’s been over ten years since I worked on Towards Golgotha, my longest piece so far. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long, especially when I look back and see how much things have changed. Towards Golgotha has been performed twice before, both times under my direction. This time, Michael Holmes is taking over the directing duties. Michael is an old friend of mine and Great Noise Ensemble’s, and a musician of great and profound insight and sensitivity (interestingly, his new baby daughter is about as old now, when he’s conducting the piece, as my daughter was when I started writing it). I trust him implicitly with the piece, but, I have to admit, it feels a little odd giving it over to him.
This has been happening a lot lately.
In the spring of 2002, when I began work on this piece, my daughter, Olivia, to whom Towards Golgotha is dedicated, was only a few months old (she will turn 12 this coming February). I had just finished my doctorate at the University of Michigan the previous December and my family and I were living in Ypsilanti, Michigan but would soon move to Portland, Oregon for a year so I could teach at Reed College, where I completed Towards Golgotha and where it was premiered. That means that this was the first piece I wrote as a professional composer, and, having always tended towards the epic, I wanted it to be a big one.
I was also still a somewhat spiritual and religious person then, although not nearly as much as I had been in the past. Presenting Towards Golgotha in a Great Noise season following the premiere of Sacred Cows, a sort of ANTI-oratorio about atheism, questioning many of the stories in Towards Golgotha, might give some of our audience a bit of whiplash (it gives me a little bit of whiplash and I wrote and programmed these pieces!). Ten years is a long time, however, and life is nothing but change. It’s as fascinating to me to hear this change in my music and musical interests as much as it is to see the change in the color of my beard.
Ten years ago, there were very few people asking to perform my music, so I had to do a lot of it myself. That is one thing that has changed in the last ten years, and I find myself having to give my music over to others to perform more and more. This has taught me a very important lesson: the piece, once it’s done, no longer belongs to me. Yes, one hears this mantra repeated a lot, to the point that it’s hard to device its meaning. Often, it’s invoked as a statement of the rights of fans (if you’re a Star Wars fan, for example, you heard it invoked as such around 1997, when George Lucas first started tinkering with his original films for his “special editions”). Not having a prolific recorded output, however, my fan base is quite limited (although I do appreciate that my audience will hear my music differently than I do, and bring to it their own interpretations, which are as equally valid as mine…to a point. YOU SEE HOW HARD THIS IS TO LEARN?!?!). I do, however, work with a lot of performers who are committed to bringing their own take to my music, and it’s been very important to learn to let go. In this way, I’m learning to find my voice through the voices of others, working together to find the ultimate ideal in a piece.
Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn in this regard has been to lose control over the piece. When I’m up there on the podium, I can have a pretty direct influence on how the piece will sound in performance. Yes, ensemble performance is a collaboration, and one of the things I love about working with groups like GNE is how truly we embody the meaning of that word, “collaboration.” In the end, though, the buck stops at the podium and, as the conducting composer, I can have a very strong say in how the piece is performed. When I’m in the hall in rehearsal, with someone else in the podium, the experience is very different. Yes, I still have a say, but it is no longer my rehearsal. My input is usually appreciated by conductors, and hearing a piece from the hall, without the concerns of running a rehearsal, can help open my ears quite a bit. But it is not my role, in that situation, to stop rehearsals and work a section until it is just right. When the group performing my work is the ensemble I founded and have led for nine seasons, the need to let go is that much more important and that much more difficult to achieve.
As I’ve become busier as a composer, and as Great Noise Ensemble’s opportunities have become bigger, I’ve had to stop conducting as much in order to write more music and take on more behind the scenes duties that arise with a busier schedule and a higher profile for an organization. The result has been that I’ve had to let conducting duties go to our Associate Conductor, David Vickerman, and to guest conductors over the last two seasons, something which has left me with a strange feeling. I still attend rehearsals, and when I do, it’s a feeling akin to running into an old girlfriend with whom one is still friends, and seeing her walking hand in hand with another man. Just as possessiveness is poisonous in human relationships, however, over-possessiveness of one’s ensemble can be inhibiting to its growth. So, I’ve had to accept my role behind the scenes and welcome the time to write music. I will be back on the podium, certainly, but the time spent with other conductors has been good for Great Noise’s sound as a group, just as it has been good for my own music to be introduced by other conductors as well.
I will engage, finally, in a cliché, but a real one. As a parent, my role is to prepare my children for adulthood. Part of that is accepting that, one day, my children will no longer be children, and be off on their own, to form their own lives. I can see that day coming on the horizon now with my children, in fact. With Great Noise Ensemble, and with my work as a composer, the process is similar. As the organization has grown, and as my reputation as a composer has grown alongside it, I’ve had to let go of the control I once exerted and let the work grow and develop its own life. It’s all part of growing up.
Great Noise Ensemble will be performing Towards Golgotha at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring on Saturday, November 2nd– if you’d like to attend and hear this epic work, more information is available here: GNE presents Poems For All Souls: Armando Bayolo’s Towards Golgotha