Why have you resisted writing for orchestra?
I didn’t really have a desire. My experience with the orchestra goes back to the ’80s, with “The Desert Music.” And it was a disaster in Cologne. The musicians couldn’t play it, and Peter Eotvos, who was the conductor, at one point said, “What can I do?”
Eventually it was done with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, with 36 hours of rehearsal and my people thrown in as ringers. And it was great. But I realized this was a freak situation; this is not how orchestras work.
When I was thinking about this [new piece], I was at the L.A. Phil, and I started looking at the setup. They have the principal strings in a very tight horseshoe. And right behind, the principal winds. I thought: There’s my ensemble. Add some vibes, a couple of pianos, I’m home free. And I thought that if you give the orchestra a straightforward part, you can devote the rehearsal time to the principals.
Even if the orchestral part were more complicated, I feel like your music comes more naturally to players these days. What changed?
As a composer, time is on your side if you continue living. I’ve been fortunate in that the works have been performed frequently and recorded. A lot of people have heard a lot of my music, which makes it infinitely easier to deal with them. Eventually you’re not going to be around, so either the music is appreciated and will live, or it’s not. I think a lot of my ensemble pieces are.
How do you feel about orchestral music as a listener?
I don’t go to many orchestral concerts at all. There are those like Andrew Norman and John Adams — who is, in a sense, sui generis. I think John is the only person I can say confidently, “This man is writing music that will be in the orchestral literature in the future.” Whereas the ensemble, to me, is the center of musical life that I live in.