Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Since moving to computer-based notation, and often composing directly into the notation program, my drafting process has become more continuous and less defined by the discrete steps of doing work all by hand. All of those steps -- from sketch to draft to clean pencil copy to inked manuscript -- have become condensed into a single, perpetually mutating, data file. Some composers like to save all of their in-between steps even when composing in digital formats; I can't quite bring myself to do that. In fact, erasing all those steps and missteps has become program for me: I want to forget those steps myself and erase them from public memory in one move, if only to lend a bit more magic to the finished product.

Here's a far-too-vivid description of a novelist's drafting process, from an interview with China Miéville:
CM: Yes, I'm finishing a novel right now. I've finished the first draft. An analogy occurred to me, as I stared at this beautiful, fucking messy thing. When a cat gives birth to a kitten, it then licks all the manky crap off it for an hour. So the transition from first to second draft: I have to spend a month licking afterbirth off a kitten.

JP: That's a great analogy.

CM: I thought so. Thank you. It's hideously accurate-feeling.
For a precious few of us, our sketches and manuscripts will eventually be sought after by collectors or archives (for new music, the most prestigious archive has been this one). For the rest of us, it's all about the practical issues of living with the mess and figuring out what to do with it when we're done. By moving to composition directly into the computer, I will cheerfully admit to making it difficult for future musicologists to trace my steps and less cheerfully admit that I am separating myself from at least a tiny chance of someday generating income from the sale of manuscripts. I have kept my manuscript juvenalia, but even with that, there have been moments in which I have almost convinced myself to reduce all my files to finished and digitized scores and to barbecue the remaining paperwork, but the moment has never lasted long enough to turn into concrete action. So I still have a small stack of paper manuscripts as an emblem of my antiquity and will otherwise continue to work without leaving any of that manky stuff behind.


Artsy Honker said...

Interesting; I hate doing first drafts on the computer, even with all the shiny bells and whistles that are supposed to make it easier. I almost always start with pencil and paper and only get as far as data files when I already have a pretty good idea what I'm doing.

My rough drafts usually get recycled, though.

Anonymous said...

A few weeks ago, while looking for something else, I found a one-page piece I had written 40(!) years ago. However, I do not have a single thing that I created on my Apple II or original Mac.

I love computers, but entrusting one's works to purely digital storage is risky. Do you really think you will be able to access them in 40 years?

Ben.H said...

I compose almost completely with computers, and rarely use notation software. I've become obsessive about progressively saving my music at different stages of composition (in wav, midi, whatever): partly because if I screw something up I can't otherwise undo the damage (although I don't think this has ever happened), partly because in a year or two I will have completely forgotten how I made the piece, having no written-out record of what I was thinking at the time. Also, I like the idea of maintaining some kind of virtual clutter through which I will inadvertently trawl at some later stage - it's usually a good source for ideas.

As anonymous says, I do worry about digital storage. Never mind 40 years, computer file and storage formats can become unusable in less than a decade.