Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Getting it done

When I'm composing for myself, without a deadline to meet, the idea of finishing a piece tends to lose urgency. While I will readily admit to some less-than-optimal working habits, this is not procrastination, but a program: when the composing is going very well, it can be a manic experience; musically, intellectually, emotionally, a party I'd rather not end. Given the luxury of time to get things right, to be particular about details, I tend to take my time, and will often throw out five to ten times a much music as will eventually make it into the piece. And without the pressure of a deadline, I tend to be promiscuous about my musical projects, going from one to another, and sometimes dumping the both for a time to chase a new idea or fantasy.

But at some point, the piece is either going to get done, or join the file drawer full of sketches, drafts, the unfinished, the abandoned and unfinishable. In theory, this is material that can be returned to, but in practice, most of this will become permanent residents of the file drawer. A few pieces will be thrown away without delay or regret, usually the products of unfortunate ideas or faulty technique. Some pieces just get lost (one of my last pen-and-ink scores actually got washed away, sitting on a open window bank during an unexpected storm). The best ideas tend to lock themselves in my ears and mind, and when they return, it is usually unprompted by any written record.

How do you decide when a piece is done? Most other composers probably have some dynamic or dramatic ideas about this. Climax, release, arsis/thesis, all that rot. And many of them have some notions about the how a "professional" score should appear and what elements it must include. In some cases, the idea, nature, and terms of the project are so clear, that the premise defines its own conclusion. A lot of process pieces work this way. Much of the music of Alvin Lucier as well. Sometimes a piece is complete when it literally exhausts a list of possibilities. This is a premise of some serial music. But my own music isn't always that neat, and the end of composition comes not from an exhaustion of possibilities, but from a exhaustion of my engagement with the work, or a sense that I can't really do too much more without doing more damage than good, and the piece is simply declared "done" by fiat.

I suppose that the notion of getting a piece done is for me less a matter of achieving some kind of perfection but rather of getting over imperfections. I go with Wm. Blake, as in A Vision of the Last Judgement:

"Error is created. Truth is eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. "

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