I do not do well with the “plan the piece, then execute it” approach. All these years, I have been slaving over getting the opening good enough to move on from before I know anything really meaningful about the rest of the piece. I thought that by doing this that I was giving myself a solid foundation, but all I was really doing was committing myself to the specifics of an idea without allowing it to really live with itself as music; in other words, the specifics of, say, the opening were so carefully worked out and solidified that it became difficult to go back and make any significant changes after composing the ending.
But it turns out I am much more oriented toward shaping music through revision, by modifying existing material almost like a visual artist. I’ve just had a great experience with a piece in which I basically wrote a pretty crappy “draft” version in about a week, then spent at least three weeks tweaking and even completely reshaping portions of the piece until I knew that it was done. I can’t say if the process resulted in a better piece or not, but I certainly enjoyed the process a lot more; in fact, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed composing so much since when I first gave it a shot at the end of high school.
How much easier it was to be able to think about a piece that already had a double bar and most of the blank measures filled in! Thinking of a painter colleague’s wonderfully tactile work habits, I kept destroying sections of the piece—both horizontal and vertical—and then building something new in its place, sometimes “painting over” sections with other layers. Just as one might say “there needs to be more orange over in this corner of the canvas,” I listened to each successive version of the composition in my head and adjusted it accordingly—draw out this section a bit longer, redo this section with a more active woodwind presence supporting these rising gestures, etc.
As silly as it may sound, this experience has come as a major source of reassurance as I’ve been trying to find a way to enjoy the craft and business of composing again after a somewhat fallow period. And in the end I felt like this method led me to a place that was actually closer to some of my original intentions.
The next time I’m feeling totally stumped, I’m going to fill up several pages with whole note Cs and then ask myself “how could this be better?” A hilariously open-ended question, no doubt, but now one which has some counterpart in reality rather than the sometimes dimly lit corridors of the mind.