First Drafts

First Drafts

There are few things in life that I find quite as humbling as embarking on the first draft of a new piece. At this stage, the recently completed composition generally appears to be the paragon of perfection (it surely will reveal its flaws at a later date), especially in contrast to my hazy vision of the work ahead. The new path appears dark and poorly mapped, rife with snares and labyrinthine dead ends.

The inspiration for a new piece generally arises for me as a single idea—a vision of a sound that I believe requires further exploration. Sometimes this germinating spore appears—like Athena—fully formed from my head; at other times it’s a vague hunch. The degree of exploration required at the next stage depends on the clarity of this initial concept.

In the instances when I am least confident, I often begin by sketching various musical fragments without regard to how they might fit into a larger whole. These snippets might be examples of affects that interest me in that particular piece, attempts at opening or closing gestures, or comparatively idiomatic or unusual ways of treating the current instrumentation.

For pieces that begin with more specific thoughts, I often draw a loose graph of the intended structure for the finished composition. I utilize the largest paper I can find (lately desk blotting pads) and run a timeline along the bottom, over which I pencil in relative section weights along with written descriptions of the types of gestures that will comprise those sections. In some compositions I adhere remarkably closely to this gestalt diagram; however, I forgot about the drawing I created before starting my most recent piece and was somewhat surprised to find it buried under a stack of manuscript paper when I had completed the composition (the resulting piece bore little resemblance to the structure I initially sketched).

When I feel satisfied with the results derived from this initial phase, I move into writing the piece itself. I invariably jettison the first three to fifteen drafts of the opening, since with each one I become more confident in my ability to sense how the timing works and how material might connect through the entire composition. Sometimes, I’ll write well into a work before realizing how dismal my initial ideas truly were. I save all the sketches (even the embarrassing ones) and sometimes refer to them while completing that project, but I have yet to peruse these drafts while generating material for newer projects.

I feel the need to remind myself of this process, because I’m beginning a new piece—one that is larger than any I’ve attempted to date—and I’m frightened. Staring into the void, I always feel somewhat listless and despondent, and so I comfort myself with reminders that such feelings are (at least for me) normal rather than pathological. Part of the amazing resiliency of humans derives from our inability to clearly remember the experience of pain and discomfort. And so I keep driving myself into new projects whether or not I’m truly ready to blaze the path outlined above.

If all goes well, I soon will find myself in the middle of the piece and will have again forgotten the difficulties of the first draft.

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5 thoughts on “First Drafts

  1. Shockley


    Enjoyed the post, as ever. You, of course, have lots of company in the fear of a new start. –Stravinsky, famously, was terrified he would die before finishing The Rake’s Progress (his largest piece to date). I hate the beginning of a new piece, myself, even when I have a great idea for the piece. That first bit is painful, and it’s real work! My old sawhorse, the one I frequently tell my students when they’re stuck, struggling to make a start: I detest the first 1 percent and the last 1 percent (all those Finale clean ups that take so much ingenuity to do things in spite of the software); I love the rest of the process.

    For me, if composing were just those opening and closing struggles, I just wouldn’t do it. And, for each new piece, I seem to forget the pleasure that comes with the facility with the materials I gain after making a solid start. So there’s a bit of fear at that new beginning (why am I putting myself through this pain? can I do this again? can I _still_ compose music?).

  2. ChristianBCarey


    Enjoyed your post. Yes, the blank page can be daunting.

    One of the approaches I’m experimenting with to help get started is doing etudes – smaller fractals – of the bigger pieces.

    Of course, David Rakowski is probably the most famous recent adopter of the etude as a palette cleanser in between big projects. His piano etudes are constructed using rigorous rules – the amount of days he’s allowed to spend on them, limitations on their revision, etc. An interesting by-product: these have become some of his most often performed and finely regarded pieces.

    Any one else craft etudes or other small sketches to kick start larger projects?

  3. maestro58

    Avoid that First Draft Fever…
    I know the feeling of that blank page staring back at you when you want to compose. I first battled it during my undergraduate degree, and it took my formulating a strategy that helps me to this day: Unless I am writing a song or another text driven piece, I outline a blueprint from start to finish. It helped me write a 42 minute violin & piano piece in the early 1980s and other “ART” inspired pieces I do today. I’m lucky, my thematic sketches of melodies usually work in the context I have created. If I try writing something without a blueprint, I hit road blocks, so I avoid free forming at all costs. Maybe I should have typed free falling…

  4. rskendrick

    Crapping out a first draft
    Another excellent post David. First drafts tend to be ugly with lots of warts and other imperfections. Sometimes the fear of putting down rubbish gets in the way of the process of creativity. I’ve come to the conclusion that we just need to get something out there to start tinkering with and making it better, and we just have to realize that the first version might be terrible. It’s important though, to make that first step, and the quicker we get the first draft out there, the quicker we’ll get the piece completed. I’ve written about my ideas on this topic here, The Crap it Out Theory in case you are interested.

  5. mclaren

    The notion that serious contemporary music doesn’t really exist if it isn’t written down in common practice music notation on conventional music paper is scriptism.

    David Behrman and the League of Automatic Composers created interactive assembly language computer programs to work with performers live in the mid-1970s, using KIM-1 computers with 4 kilobytes (yes, 4 KILOBYTES) of RAM.

    Many composers still work this way today, but with more sophisticated computers. Zoe Keating, Tim Perkis, Teri Hron, many others.

    To many contemporary composers, a discussion of how you feel when setting down the first notes of a new composition on manuscript paper seems as relevant as talking about your difficulties in flicking your buggy whip when you ride your horse-drawn carriage.


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