Finished Business?

Finished Business?

For the past approximately nine months, the main compositional focus of my life has been a song cycle based on the poetry of Stephen Crane. A 19th-century American author who died at the age of 28, he is known mostly for his 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. Some adventurous readers have additionally tackled Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, an 1893 novel about life in the slums of New York City. While both of those novels are literary landmarks for their naturalistic approach, Crane’s poems (which he preferred to call “lines”) are deeply surreal, aphoristic, and at times border on inscrutability. Rhymeless and often only a sentence or two (when they were first published they were typeset in all capital letters), most of them are extremely contemporary sounding, so it did not seem a terrible anachronism for me to want to set them to music in the 21st century.


The final bar line in a piece of music is rarely the last thing I write.

I first had the idea for setting his poetry in early December, about a month after learning I had received a commission to write a song cycle from the ASCAP Foundation Charles Kingsford Fund. I spent the next couple of months scouring through Crane’s entire poetic output trying to figure out which ones would work set to music (particularly music I would want to write), how many I should ultimately choose, and then how the poems I chose would fit together to form a whole. To get myself further into Crane’s head, I also re-read both Red Badge and Maggie. I did not start composing a single note of music until March 25, at which point I had already identified the 12 poems I wanted to include in the cycle, as well as their order. While I frequently will create a structural framework in which to work and then start composing actual music somewhere in the middle, for this project I actually began at the beginning and pretty much completed setting the first poem for the cycle that day. But then I jumped to the fifth poem and, shortly thereafter, to the twelfth and very last song in the cycle. For the most part, all of the subsequent songs were created between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.—the daily regimen I’ve put myself on to work on composition every day—although ideas sometimes came to me at other hours and I spent a few afternoons and evening testing things out on the piano. (For the sake of neighborliness, I opted against banging on a piano before sunrise.) Throughout the process, my original order for the twelve poems remained intact with only one switch. (The setting of the fifth poem inspired an idea for the setting of poems five through eight, but as they got fleshed out it made more sense to swap the order of six and seven.) Anyway, by last week eleven of the twelve songs were done, and late on Saturday afternoon I completed the remaining one, which is actually the ninth in the sequence.

I’ve recounted all this, including more details of the process than you perhaps need to know, because since Saturday afternoon I’ve been ruminating on what it means to complete a musical composition. Although all of the songs are done, in that I have composed them all and have engraved them all, I have yet to play through them all (physically singing and playing the piano or even via the MIDI protocols on my computer) for myself, let alone other people, and have not even printed them all out on paper. I have yet to present the score to the performers and work through all the minutiae of the piece; undoubtedly there will be a few changes here and there, and perhaps there are even some misprints in what I wrote. So is the piece actually done? And did I start composing it on March 25 or months before when I started compiling the texts? If I keep revising it up until the premiere (unlikely, but who knows), will it not be complete until the premiere? Some might argue (along the lines of that tree falling in the forest) that until other people hear it, it doesn’t really exist. Even in the extremely unlikely event that it was someday performed at Madison Square Garden, it would only reach a finite number of people unless it were also recorded and/or made available online. When should something enter history? And if by some unfortunate circumstance it never gets recorded and is not heard again after a poorly attended premiere, does it even qualify for becoming a part of history?

I ask these questions because musicologists get really obsessed about when things were written, as if that’s the only date that counts. Admittedly, I do, too—I keep extensive lists of when various of compositions were written as a way to remind myself that a clear stylistic zeitgeist is as much a panacea for anytime in the past as it is for the present. But time can be elusive. The debate about when Charles Ives composed certain pieces or which versions of the Bruckner symphonies are definitive (since he kept revising them) have been extremely contentious among certain scholars, but perhaps we give too much weight to the calendar. Ultimately determining a precise timeframe is not so cut and dried, nor should it be. Ideally, music is a living and ongoing process. While I’m not quite ready to consider my song cycle done and start working on another piece of music—though this will happen very soon—that piece will hopefully continue to evolve through others’ interpretations of it. After all, isn’t that what any composer would hope for?

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5 thoughts on “Finished Business?

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      The premiere is scheduled for February 23, 2013 and it is indeed for the Chan/Cheah duo. The idea was to compose a piece that took full advantage of Phillip Cheah’s double range which is why the Stephen Crane poems were ideal to set because many of them alternate between a narrator and a quoted voice which seems best conveyed by one singer who has two voices. Thanks for asking.

  1. Troy RAMOS

    Some interesting questions here…I don’t think a work has to be premeried or played to exist. It already exists, its existence just changes once it’s played. It’s a tough one to answer, though.

    And there’s probably no clear way to know when a piece actually begins because you may have started thinking of/gathering sounds for the work subconciously as you were gathering info/texts.

    In regard to when a work might be considered done, I thought of Matisse right away for some reason. I know very little about Matisse, but I did a tour at an exhibition last week in Vancouver, BC and I remember the Docent pointing, in reference to his painting, “Large Reclining Nude”, to a collection of “a superb range of drawings and paintings, provide fascinating insight into his creative process” (from museum site). Essentially, it was a collection of photographs (I think) of the various points of his movement towards being ‘done’ with this work.

    Anyway, I thought back to looking at these, as I was reading this article, and I thought: if each of those photos were seperate, that is, each a different work, and one was given to me, would I enjoy having one hanging in my apartment?

    My answer is probably going to be ‘hell yeah’. I hope this isn’t too far off the topic at hand, but the connecting thread, for me, was thinking about the versions of a work and wondering how we even determine which one is the “done version”. So, in painting, it’s not really possible. It WAS the same painting, the example given. But with music, it could happen.

    What if we revise something, get the piece to where we want it, and, say, 10, 20 years later, someone who had a copy of the original, unrevised copy, played that version and you/they thought it was super awesome?

    Would you be back to square one at deciding which was “the” piece, and, therefore, finished? Or would you simply have two pieces?

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Troy, You raise some really fascinating points here. I’m particularly intrigued by your comment about someone having a copy of the original, unrevised version of a piece and the possibility that that original version was awesome. Again, the Bruckner symphonies come to mind. Nowadays there are champions of both the originals and the latter-day revisions.

      But a piece of more recent vintage that is perhaps a better fit for this discussion, I think, might be Steve Reich’s 1979 Octet for 2 wind players, 2 pianists and string quartet. Since its initial performances, Octet was revised and it is now known as Eight Lines and is a work involving more players (an additional string quartet). The revision was ostensibly done to make the piece more playable. The original is a real test of performer endurance. But the original got recorded commercially for ECM and that recording is still widely available, although it is only possible to obtain performance materials for the subsequent revision. Yet I still treasure the performance on that recording more than any other performance I have heard subsequently. There’s something about how vulnerable the players are in the original version for just 8 players that makes it extremely exciting to listen to and it’s something I miss now. Also, Octet having a genre name that has a long history tied Reich’s piece to a whole tradition of octets going back to Mendelssohn and Schubert, an association that the more descriptively titled Eight Lines doesn’t have, which I would say re-contextualizes it for listeners somehow.

      Another example that’s also interesting to consider here which is a piece that does not have a completely notated score: La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, which has evolved from its initial composition in 1964 (when the work was just an hour long) through its first commercial recording (of a performance from 1981 that is approximately 5 hours in duration) and subsequently to that (the final performances to date feature some 6 1/2 hours of material). Young is very aware of this and includes the dates of the performance as part of the title of the composition. Thinking of a specific performance realization as a text in its own right is of course commonplace in improvisatory based music where there are no fixed scores that are definitive.

      Your point about how difficult it is to determine when a piece begins also calls to mind a comment Robert Fripp once made when someone asked him how long he practiced before a particular gig: “My whole life.”

      Assigning dates are a convenience, but sometimes this process misses the bigger picture.

  2. Rober

    I’m intrigued, Sir…Believe it or not, I’ve been trying to associate music with Stephen Crane… Will the music be available to the public, after it is performed?


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