This week has been an exciting one for students, faculty, and staff at the TCU School of Music. We had the pleasure of hosting John Corigliano in residency for a wonderful week of performances, lessons, masterclasses, and discussions. It was an exciting experience getting to know one of the greatest composers of our time.

Especially enjoyable was a performance of his third symphony, Circus Maximus, by the TCU Wind Ensemble. The work is a colossal undertaking, requiring a large stage band, a small marching band in the back of the audience, and a sax quartet and cadre of trumpets throughout the balconies. The piece is certainly a spectacle.

But the spectacle is all but impossible to describe. Sure, I can recount the experience I had as an audience member. Sure, you can listen to this recording on Spotify, or even purchase this 5-channel recording of the piece. Sure, you can look at the score. But being in the space is the only way I was able to fully understand the work. The physical locations of the players throughout the hall is so important and clearly not an afterthought for Corigliano. Their locations are critical to the piece’s success, and while a 5-channel recording does some justice to this, it is hard to truly capture the immersive experience of being in the space of the hall during a performance.

So how does someone, especially this music theorist who takes pride in being able to describe the relationship between music and other domains, explain and/or analyze something like Circus Maximus? I had a similar problem upon attending a performance of Einstein on the Beach. Leaving the hall, I wondered to myself, “how am I ever going to adequately explain something that defies analysis and explanation?” A good reference video recording of Einstein helped, and I’m glad that the TCU performance of Circus Maximus was extensively filmed. But even then, I’m relying on a director’s interpretation of what should be on screen, possibly at the expense of other action on stage.

For Einstein, the solution lies with the fact that every audience member’s interaction with the piece is going to be radically different. In a 5+ hour performance, even the most disciplined audience member is going to drift in and out of the performance. Instead, large thematic ideas and repeated musical gestures (insert your minimalism joke here…but trust me…I’ve heard them all) can lead the way in terms of finding interpretation in meaning. I’ve done just that with several scenes in Einstein, and you can find slides to that presentation here. Crucial, though, to those analyses was an artifact, the full video recording of the work, that allowed me to reference more than just the music and my recollection of what happened visually.

I look forward to seeing the video recording of TCU’s Circus Maximus performance. Perhaps then I can start in on the question of how to analytically tackle the notion of space and music in a way similar to that of my approach to Einstein.

But first, Billy Joel anyone? I’ll be presenting a paper titled “Deceptive Love: The Impact of Deceptive Motion in Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Got A Way’ and ‘She’s Always A Woman,’” on Saturday, October 8 at 1pm (Mountain Time).