Friday, June 29, 2007

Filling the Quota

Ron Kuivila used to describe a piece, or rather an idea for a piece as it probably was never realized, for solo keyboard. In this piece, each key would be allowed to sound only a fixed number of times, and then would become inoperative, thus ensuring a particular economy in the distribution of pitches in the piece. This could be realized in a score, or, when programmed appropriately, as a instrument on which to improvise. An improviser would have to have an excellent memory, or she'd find herself thumping away at more and more soundless keys as the piece went on.


There's an anecdote that my memory attributes to Stravinsky, in which the conversation turns toward a particularly prolific composer. Stravinsky (or whoever it was) responds to the mentioned profligate with the suggestion that if the government pays farmers not to grow crops in order to prevent an oversupply, they ought to extend the grace to composers, and pay them not to compose pieces.


It recently dawned on me that I was probably never going to have more space available to me than I have now. The world is more crowded than ever, I live in a part of the world in which living is done in close quarters, and I'm not likely to acquire wealth enough anytime in the near future to afford more space. The space available for stashing my scores and sketches and souvenirs and books and instruments and tools and toys is more or less fixed and filled. A certain amount of space will be recovered through electronically consolidating some of this, but my attachment to most of these artifacts is great enough that they cannot be easily let go. But more critically, composing new pieces means finding space to house then, both physical -- in my shelves and file cabinets -- and conceptual: Another string quartet, Deej? You've already done that!

Perhaps there is some opportunity here. It's always been hard for me to let go of a piece, to call it finished. While there's a certain (and very male) fear-of-death thing going on here, it's mostly because of a self-critical impulse and a fondness for tinkering about, usually with a handful of pieces on my desk at once. Changing something here, something there. I'm not in any race or rush over historical priority for any of the ideas that happen to land in my pieces, and I'm not shy about having been influenced, so dating my scores is not an issue. So what if I were to say now that I expect to compose X pieces of music, maybe even name the pieces or their genres, say 32 Sonatas and Nine Symphonies and Six Quartets, etc.? That'd then be my quota, and I could list them in my catalog as soon as a score was playable, but reserve the right to modify, edit, or replace any score within that quota, and I would only keep hard copies of the current versions. In this way, I'd never have more than Six Quartets, but they'd always be -- according to my current estimation -- optimal and improving.

Now, the chronology of my works may start to be fairly complex, or even have a fictional dimension, if, for example, I allow myself to write the First Quartet new after having finished a Sixth and then finding the First lacking, but what's altogether wrong with (a) trying to get things right? and (b) keeping idle musicologists of the future occupied? I know that Hindemith's theory-laden revisions of his early works was not always an improvement, but last time I checked, my relationship to theory was admiring but not obedient, and, Cub Scout's honor, I promise to do better than Mr. H..

Okay it's settled, I'll compose to the quota. Now I just have to find a friendly little welfare state willing to compensate me generously for all the pieces I will not compose.

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