It’s interesting how various strands of one’s life can momentarily coincide to provide unexpected revelations about composition: revisiting a revered piece from the repertoire, a chance conversation with a colleague, or interactions with students may all resolve long standing mental blocks or open creative “doors” that you never even knew existed. More about this anon, but first some history…
Someone once told me that Aaron Copland kept a receptacle on his piano called the “tune jar.” Unused scraps ended up there, orphaned ideas that would eventually find their place in another work. When an unexpected commission came along, Copland had only to reach into the jar to find the seeds for his new piece. Whether the story is true or not is of less importance than what it says about Copland as a composer, how he made the most of everything he put down on paper. I like to think of him as a composer who let nothing go to waste, and a quick listen to his music bears that out.
I know all too well how those little collections of scraps can make one feel (for better or for worse). The most unnerving feeling is that one is composing in vain, churning out page upon page of notes all with the gnawing suspicion that it’s not going to be used. Such has been the case (at least until recently) with the first movement of the Glass House Concerto. Though I produced a fleshed out score for this section earlier in the summer, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all for naught. The tutti material seemed stilted and repetitious for no reason, while the solo lines felt like nothing more than characterless placeholders. Still, composition is a process of chipping away and manipulating, and if you don’t have anything to manipulate or chip away at it can be awfully hard to get the thing off the ground.
I put the score aside while I sketched out the second movement of the concerto as well as my new piece for violin and piano, and only returned to it this past week. As a result, a leaner, more elegant conception of the movement has evolved. In some ways I feel as if the movement has been completely recomposed, using tunes from the proverbial “jar.”
But what of the coincidences I mentioned earlier? Another one of my summertime activities has been an examination of works by composers as diverse as Shostakovich, Fauré, Messiean, Andriessen, and Stucky. The seriousness of the undertaking has ranged from very detailed analysis (Shosti) to the engaged listen (Messiean), but each composer has provided his own advice on the movement in question. DSCH has reminded me to keep my materials free, but to arrange things in such a way that the structure stands on its own. Fauré has kept voice leading, shape, and the concept of “composing out” in my mind (yes, you music nerds read correctly, Fauré composes out! I can prove it!). Messiean has given me permission to repeat myself, but always with a sense of significance, always with purpose. Finally, Stucky confirms that rigor and expressiveness are not mutually exclusive, and that you don’t have to be a “capital B” band composer to write well in the medium.
Coincidence #2. I recently ran into Dr. David Macbride, my fellowship supervisor for the upcoming year. I hadn’t given much thought to the freshman composition majors I’d be teaching; after all, how does one prepare for something like that? However, I have found that teaching makes me a better composer. Having to articulate the ideas of great artists like the ones I mentioned above keeps them fresh in my own mind, and more easily applicable. The need to impart an idea lends it significance, and thus informs my own work. The ideas that had been floating in my head all summer seem to have crystallized, to have taken on a decidedly concrete form now that I’ll be working with the Hartt School’s composition “rookies.” Tomorrow I go in for a much needed haircut (see picture below), classes start on Wednesday!