Composition Time Machine

Composition Time Machine

Last weekend, I scoured my apartment searching for a manuscript of a score that I had completed 28 years ago but which has never received a public performance. It’s been on my mind again for the first time in many years, perhaps as a result of mining my brain for fodder about how, when, and why people’s personal compositional aesthetics take hold but also because there is now actually a strong possibility that a performance of it will finally take place.

I’ve always thought of this old score as something of an Opus One of sorts, not that the work was ever published or that I actually bother assigning opus numbers to things I write. And certainly there are pieces I had composed prior to that, quite a few of which had been performed. But while I don’t completely hate those earlier pieces (I try not to hate anything), they don’t really feel connected to what I’ve done in the decades since then. On the other hand, this “Opus One” piece does feel like it’s my music, even though it is not completely what I would do now.

Anyway, I couldn’t find the manuscript even though I keep a pretty meticulous archive of everything I’ve ever done. It’s something we all should do, since someone’s got to, right? After many hours, I happily managed to track down, stuffed in an envelope along with other stuff from decades ago, a photocopy of most of the piece. A few pages are mysteriously missing. Since then I’ve chanced upon a few leads on other hopefully complete copies of it that might still exist in case the original really is nowhere to be found.

Not to take any chances about what may happen in the future, I started digitizing what I have of the piece and managed to already input about more than a third of the entire composition. While it currently feels like flawlessly reconstructing what is missing from decades-old memories is close to impossible, spending time with the piece as I’m inputting it has actually returned me to the mindset of where I was compositionally a very long time ago. But it has also raised some debates in my own mind about editorial hindsight.

Though I’ve already alluded that I don’t think the piece is totally perfect, I have no interest in rewriting it. However, as I’ve been keying it into Sibelius, I’ve corrected a few things that seem like out and out mistakes, added things that seem like unintentional omissions, and eliminated the metronome markings (some of which seem unreasonable). I’ve also made changes to some of the durations which would not really affect a listener’s perception of the piece, but rather the possibility for a satisfactory performance of it, e.g. shortening the lengths of certain notes from whole notes to dotted-halves to make room for some much needed rests here and there. And one rhythm I changed because it just seemed too embarrassingly clunky, although I changed it to a rhythm that I had previously used in music from that same era so as not to force my current aesthetics onto something that is clearly from an earlier time.

But when does such editorial tinkering cross the line into revision? The extremely humble Anton Bruckner constantly revised his symphonies years after they were written to the point that the jury is still out on what the definitive versions of these pieces actually are. Some scholars have accused Charles Ives of adding more dissonances to his scores decades after writing them in an attempt to position his music as being more ahead of its time than it actually was. I’ve never wanted to believe these attacks on Ives even though I ultimately don’t think they are relevant since his pieces are so wonderful and playing the “who did what first” game just opens a Pandora’s Box that stifles individuality and creativity. But that said, not to put my own efforts in the same league as those of Bruckner or Ives (both of whom I deeply admire), I do feel that this old piece of music of mine is a by-product of 1982 and I want to keep it there. So how much 2010 tinkering would it take to unmoor it from then?

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4 thoughts on “Composition Time Machine

  1. Kyle Gann

    I’ve been through that same process over a dozen times in recent years, Frank. A bunch of old pieces that I’d put in mothballs now seem like worthwhile inspirations of a composer I can barely remember. Sometimes I add some obviously needed notes, but more often I can’t get into that young composer’s head securely enough to change anything.

    The Maynard Solomon charges against Ives have been thoroughly debunked, by the way, and I hate to see people still alluding to them. Read Carol Baron, Stuart Feder, and Gayle Sherwood Magee. I like to think Ives occasionally restored some dissonances that he’d wanted to use at the time, but feared he was going too far. Nevertheless, his works were just as radical for their time as they’ve always seemed.

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Hi Frank,

    As you know, I take care to archive past work. But it’s an archive. If a performance is likely (such as the 1972 sample piece for trombones and tape, premiered in 2003), I’ll fix mistakes, clean up notation, sometimes set them into a nice software-notation copy, or occasionally revise the orchestration for different performing ensembles. But I don’t tinker with old pieces to improve them.

    There was a time that I was already tired of the weight of old pieces and it was holding back my ability to change. So on May 23, 1976, during the second Delaware Valley Avant-Garde Festival, I burned some 40 pieces and all their sketches and drafts — about half of what I’d created in my first 12 years as a composer.

    It was a good lesson. I learned that whatever effort I might expend on a piece was truly ephemeral. Old pieces might be kept, but they would stay as part of the past when they were made.

    I haven’t destroyed anything since that 1976 “Detonacy”, but the memory keeps me moving forward. (And unlike Bruckner, there are few enough performances for a real chance for me to revise anything.)


  3. Armando

    An interesting question, Frank, and one that’s in my mind off and on when I consider certain pieces I wrote as a student which I don’t consider have a connection to what I’m doing now, but which, given their size or how significant they seemed to me then, I would like to bring up to date, as it were. Ultimately, I’ve chosen to steer clear of that. When I was 19 I read Shostakovich’s memoir, “Testimony” (another musicologically controversial work the controversy on which I thought had long been settled, but which a student recently brought into question for me again–but that’s besides the point). In it, Shostakovich speaks of this phenomenon in Bruckner and how it was affecting a number of young Soviet composers he was mentoring. He would urge them to simply learn from the mistakes they perceived in their pieces and apply their lesson to the next piece and leave the earlier piece be to stand as what it is. That admonition has stayed with me for almost 20 years now and I am loathe to revise older pieces once they’ve been performed.

  4. jlz

    Hmmm — this must be in the air.

    About 3 weeks back I pulled out my very first completed piece, a 5-movement piano suite, tightened up 3 places and wrote another movement to complete this ‘portrait of a city’. It should be published this summer.

    Why bother?
    Because I suspected that many style aspects I recognize in current works were there full-formed in music by a 12-year-old. (The piece had also won a national prize — pretty good feedback to a kid.) The suspicion proved out — consequently the piece demanded I pay attention to it.

    As a parent I know that a child’s personality is there, writ large, from the get-go. So no real surprise to see the same at work in one’s music, too.


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