Opening Moves

Opening Moves

It’s relatively easy to come up with the first line of a poem, premise for a play, or opening measure of a musical composition compared to the difficulty of following the consequences of that opening move to their conclusion. An apparent corollary: there’s no opening measure, line of verse, or premise so beyond redemption that it couldn’t possibly be spun into a successful whole.

The distance between the opening of a musical composition and its fullness—between the first play and the ultimate outcome—is what makes for so much interest and drama; in fact it might even be accurate to say that this distance is the drama. This being the case, it is often vastly more interesting to witness an amazing structure being erected from modest means; or to stick with the game metaphor, some of the most satisfying games arise when initial expectations are supplanted and the game follows an unexpected path to a hard-won victory.

But rather than being a zero-sum game like chess or Monopoly, the process of composition is more like a game we play within ourselves, a game to refine and improve our ability to create satisfying music. In a sense there is something meaningful we are playing “against” (or perhaps “playing off of”), but it is something of our own creation, something meaningful we have elected to strive for independently of any “opponent”.

Sometimes when I’ve finished a piece of music—particularly when I pause over one of the spots I’m most proud of—I wonder how the opening might have proceeded in an entirely different and valid direction. And when I consider how many fruitful explorations might have resulted from my initial idea—and how many other potential “versions” of the finished piece there are—I come to appreciate that my own solution isn’t “the” solution by any means. There are many ways to play the same opening hand, and coming to a full appreciation of that truth done a good deal to help me focus on the flow of composing over my tendency to obsess over the exact “right” way in which to begin. After all, even the best opening is just a point of departure.

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One thought on “Opening Moves

  1. Jay.Derderian

    I often feel that staring at blank staves at the beginning to be one of the most difficult moments in composition. Of course, the rest is difficult too – “what comes next?” is the constant question.

    But, then again, and more often than not, I usually have some sort of premise before I begin, so maybe in the end it is the journey that helps define the work. Almost all of my pieces began as puzzles/challenges I proposed to myself. “How do I write a piece who’s narrative is decidedly non-linear?”, or “Can I write a piece that suggests multiple tempos without multiple tempos?”, or “Is it possible to write a piece where the performers are in several different sections at once and still have it be coherent?” etc…

    The challenge is what motivates me, and out of that challenge, I (attempt) to find a solution who’s identity begins in the opening measures. The rest is the journey.


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