Recycling Bins

“Colorful Recycling Containers for Trash” by on Flickr

I’m curious about composers recycling their work. The act of recycling can take different forms; for instance, a composition can be arranged for different instrumental forces, which is a very clear and direct form of recycling. Musical material such as chord progressions and melodic lines can be taken from one piece and transferred to another, or a formal structure can be recreated within a different context.

Recycling happens all the time, in all different art forms, and I find it a perfectly acceptable creative method. Many would say that at this point in time any music brought into existence is the result of recycling, because “it’s all been done before.” When I’m composing, I often save music that doesn’t make it into the final version of the piece I’m working on, and later go back and sort through the discard pile in case something can be mined for a new work. What usually ends up happening is that any old material I decide to try out winds up so transformed that it barely resembles its beginning form. In that context, recycling can be really handy, serving as a stepping stone to new ideas.

But I wonder, as useful as repurposing material can be for stimulating ideas, has it become in some instances a shortcut by which we avoid the hard work of creating truly new material “out of thin air”? Hearing the music of composers who have been writing striking and original work in very personal voices rather suddenly begin replicating their own musical “habits” in fairly overt ways raises an eyebrow; what’s going on there? Hearing a prominent melody from one piece recur in another is by no means an automatically negative thing—goodness knows, the music of Philip Glass, for instance, is very specific, and his techniques recur frequently. In general, my questions are about the impetus behind the action. Is it simply that the composer really loves that melody and is jonesing to hear it more? Or is s/he so buried under a load of commissions and deadlines that recycling has become a method by which to produce work more quickly? Again, there’s not a right or wrong here. I’ve heard a number of musicians and friends recently share their experiences of how much the increasing speed of life—both in a general, and in a personal sense—can affect creative decisions, and that they have felt the need to take steps to slow down a bit and take stock of all the swirling activity around them. Although the recycling of physical materials is something I embrace wholeheartedly, can music creation be viewed in the same light?

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7 thoughts on “Recycling

  1. Owen Davis

    Great article, Alexandra! I’ve been thinking about this after a recent stint of composition that was quick to meet a deadline. I found myself not borrowing from my previous self, but in kind of the same way “writing what I know”. I was in a scenario where this music had to be created and then had to be performed quickly. Listening to the end product, which actually turned out to be interesting, I fell back on my sensibilities as a percussionist. (Falling back on one’s instrumental sensibilities could be an entirely different topic). I found this to work very well in getting this music out, but I don’t know how I feel about it artistically. In one way I am left with an empty feeling knowing what the piece could have been, in another way it was a means to an end to “getting it out”. Something that we must do anyways. The question am raising is how does the music gain (or suffer) from the speed at which we write it? I guess it depends on the person.

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Thanks Owen! Yes I think that “the need for speed” depends very much on the person. I compose slowly, but sometimes as an exercise force myself to churn out material uncomfortably fast (for me). Usually most of it is awful, but once in a while there are ideas there to pick out of the rubble – ideas that I would probably never have come up with otherwise. On the other hand, I have a friend who recently churned out a big orchestra piece in three months, no sweat!

      There are always the pieces that don’t feel as satisfying as other pieces – I think it’s worth taking time to figure out what would have made the music better, and doing that on the next round.

      Also, we all probably lean toward our instruments (I studied percussion as well), especially when things seem uncertain. All these things are good to be aware of as we go about our work!

      1. Owen Davis

        But back to the the “recycling” concept. I think that it’s interesting that all of the time we talk about the pseudo-ethics of borrowing from others whether it be ideas, gestures, or actual material and what that might mean for in the realm of originality — which in itself (the pursuit of being “original”) some have somehow begun to demonize as the killer of audience-friendly music. I have never thought of the meta-borrowing and what that might mean. Where is the line between borrowing from yourself and developing a “voice” as a composer? Is makes up the DNA of our individual music boil down to the repetition and development of ideas in an overarching sense or in a series of works?

        1. Mark Winges

          Absolutely, Owen (& Alexandra). Recycling can be a lifesaver when faced with a deadline (as someone said: “I enjoy deadlines, I love the sound of them as they go whooshing past”).

          I find recycling can also server as a “yeast starter” if I take some previous material, break it down and try to figure out why I think it was successful and what the essence of that material is. That can result in “recycled” material that has no obvious connection to the original. But of course, that assumes there’s time to go through that process.

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I recycle occasionally, mostly because I write a lot. Sometimes it’s just re-orchestration, almost always on request from a group that likes an extant string quartet but has an ensemble of, say, ocarina, accordion, mandocello and washtub bass.

    The more serious form of recycling has to do with ideas that are either (retrospectively) incomplete in their original form, ideas that generate other ideas, ideas that suggest themselves as part of another piece in progress, or are ideas that I’ve forgotten and thought that I’d invented anew.

    The last one is embarrassing. Let’s leave it at that.

    Incomplete pieces reveal themselves later. Because I don’t physically sketch but do so mentally and write them down in near-final form, there are forgotten threads leading elsewhere. I’ll remember those threads later and a world of possibilities will flood back.

    This is slightly different from ideas which suggest themselves as part of another piece in progress. In that case, new threads will lead toward a piece already completed, and then back out again. The earlier segment won’t be left in final form, though, and will usually end up significantly transformed. But without that original, I wouldn’t written the new one.

    Pieces that generate other ideas end up being time-distorted variations, in a way. You might just call it stylistic development. For folks who know my stuff, it sounds like me, and triggers the memory of an earlier piece which provide the seeds or roots. I’d guess this really isn’t recycling; it’s just change that all composers undergo.

    There is one more — lifting nearly the entirety of an existing piece. It fits better in another context, or it is something whose performance fails to take place and I don’t want to lose it. I’ve done that rarely, and only where nothing else can do at that moment. Later I feel queasy.

  3. Mark N. Grant

    Alexandra, great topic—but beyond the notebook recycling we all do, composers’ recycling historically is perhaps the most scandalously unexplored issue in musicology. One kind of recycling is publicly acknowledged, the other is a dirty secret. The more commonly acknowledged kind is the re-arranging of a piece for another medium, as in two works in the recent Spring for Music series here in NYC: Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony (Prokofiev’s reworking of material from his ballet “The Prodigal Son”) or John Harbison’s orchestral suite transcribing music from his opera “The Great Gatsby.” Likewise, the American composer Gail Kubik’s 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “Symphonie Concertante,” was based on music Kubik had already composed for his score to the 1949 Hollywood film noir “C-Man.” Kubik himself said, “Your functional music, for a serious composer, ends up constituting a notebook for all sorts of ideas for a big abstract piece.” (I knew Kubik and studied with him.)

    The other, naughtier kind of recycling is stealth recycling—i.e., unabashed self-plagiarism—which can only be detected by razor-close familiarity with scores. I can cite as examples two vastly productive composers whose work I happen to know well; though they were dissimilar as could be in most regards, they were both frequent self-cannibalizers.

    Even his fan base doesn’t know that Kurt Weill sometimes shamelessly reused his own material. He was a constantly occupied theater man, always worked fast, and thus his recycling is pardonable. The tune to his greatest American hit (“September Song”) which the world thinks debuted in his 1938 musical “Knickerbocker Holiday” actually appeared earlier with a different lyric in his 1935 London operetta “A Kingdom for a Cow.” Weill also freely borrowed other tunes from his other Parisian works for his 1936 American musical “Johnny Johnson.” He later (for his 1947 opera “Street Scene”) lifted the tune for “Ain’t It Awful the Heat” from his own 1944 operetta “The Firebrand of Florence.” Then in 1948 in “Love Life” he quoted from “Street Scene.”

    More remarkably, in America Weill recycled material from his pre-1933 German scores totally from memory, having fled Nazi Germany without copies of most of his own scores. One example: “Punch and Judy Get a Divorce” from the 1948 “Love Life” quotes from music Weill wrote for his 1933 opera Die Bürgschaft. He also quoted Mahagonny in Knickerbocker Holiday. None of this is to suggest that Weill didn’t have robust powers of invention—he did—but it didn’t bother him to recycle.

    Cross-references and self-requotes of themes abound in Percy Grainger’s concert works. His “The Lonely Desert Man Sees the Tents of the Happy Tribes” wafts up whole in the middle of Grainger’s largest orchestral piece “The Warriors” like a recalled mirage. His two “Hill Songs” both quote from his Kipling Setting “Dedication.” The Australian UpCountry Tune, the Gumsuckers March, The Widow’s Party, and Colonial Song all freely interchange similar thematic materials. These are only a few examples. Self-repeating, even self-stealing he was and yet he left hundreds of works. Grainger’s music sometimes seems to reminisce his music even when it abounds in fresh melodic ideas, as in “The Warriors.” Is that creative weakness? Then so is Leonard Bernstein’s reuse of the entirety of his “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle of his opera “A Quiet Place.”

    I am convinced that Weill and Grainger were not alone and that there are many other undocumented cases among history’s masters of similarly covert self-recycling. It may well be the dirty little secret of the composing trade, historically.

    1. bgn

      …composers’ recycling historically is perhaps the most scandalously unexplored issue in musicology.

      Not among Handel scholars.


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