Thursday, July 07, 2011

Keeping a Commonplace

The composer Jeff Harrington recently pointed to a page transcribing the contents of H.P. Lovecraft's Commonplace Book, here. Lovecraft left enough interesting ideas as unused material for several careers worth of weird fiction, heck even a few weird operas. (I have to admit to never having read Lovecraft; maybe I should remedy this.)

To some extent, blogs are performing, in public, the function of the Commonplace Book, the place to keep record of one's own education, jotting down gathered notes and quotes, observations, ideas. This page actually began as a more-or-less smooth transitition from the marginalia I habitually scribbled on the edges of sketches and scores. But being public has altered the scope of this project. It tends to be more political and, though something of a record of my current musical obsessions, it's not as iniitmately connected to my compositional projects as my marginalia was, indeed, I find myself rather shy about writing directly about my own compositional concerns. At the same time, my entire cogitating-sketching-composing-editing procedure has changed quite a bit. Whereas I used to be fairly rigorous in the march from sketch to score, leaving a substantial paper trail, I now do more work directly in notation software now and try to keep my sketches to bits of paper (usually A6 size) that I scatter around my desk while working — some bits of notation, formal schemes, reminders of work to be done etc. — and then brush them aside into the waste basket when no longer needed. (I think having a crowded house with kids and dog underfoot has made me much less patient about maintaining an archive of sketches (on the other hand, in my role as publisher, I'm fairly obsessive in maintain any bit of paper from the other composers in my catalog.) On the other hand, I have several hundred uncatalogued pieces in various stages of development in the form of computer files for notation programs; I have no idea how or if I'll maintain these. )

But the idea of keeping an idea book like Lovecraft's, for my music, especially for all the plans and fantasies for work-to-come, is very attractive. I do have a short list with titles and short descriptors of pieces I'd like to write (titles are very important to me), but it's just another piece of paper hanging on the wall before my desk, not a real book. An idea book is something like a diary, but more like a dream diary than a record of daily and mundane accomplishments. Like diaries, however, I think that the very "bookishness" of such a document gives it a degree of seriousness and commitment that is useful for a composer. La Monte Young, for example, has long kept an Idea Book (and some of his ideas, from the peek I've had, are really quite wonderful and surprising, in particular a pair of operas.) Do you keep an idea book?


Elaine Fine said...

I actually do keep an idea book, but my problem is that once I write things down I rarely look at the book. Once the cover is closed, it ends up being closed, and sometimes the book, which just has a black cover, ends up getting lost. When I do open it up to write something down, I'm always surprised to find ideas that never came to fruition.

Random index cards that sit on the pile next to my computer tend to be my medium of choice for jotting down ideas.

Anonymous said...

I think these days privacy is a huge concern. Never store critical personal information on a computer that you use to connect to the Internet. EVER.

I think we underestimate the level of visibility of our machines. See Michael Caloyannides' excellent book "Privacy protection and computer forensics", 2nd ed.

I don't have a diary or idea book, but, then again, who cares.

Here's what David Morley, one of the greatest writers of our time, has to say about it:

harmonyharmony said...

I have kept an ideas book since around 1998. My sketch material has decreased since then, and I work a lot less with precomposition. When I worked on a large ensemble work in 2002-3, I was surrounded by sheets of paper with pitch gamuts, rhythmic working, numbers, etc. Now I'm more likely to have a printout of a spreadsheet, and maybe one sheet of pitch working that will serve for the whole piece. The ideas book now has hardly any examples of actual working (pitch, rhythm, etc.) and is actually largely now just populated with ideas. I have always found that writing ideas down gives me a sense of their value, and the very act of writing is important for the development of ideas.

Ben.H said...

I started keeping a commonplace book nearly 20 years ago, carrying it with me everywhere to get myself into the habit of writing regularly. I now have a stack of hardcover A6 notebooks, which I very occasionally dip into to raid for old ideas.

My latest book gets used a lot less frequently, but it is useful for writing down ideas to stop me forgetting them, or doing some rudimentary working-out of a new piece. Probably because I spend more time at the computer now, a lot of these notes get written into text files and saved in my projects folders. (Unless I'm at work, in which case I write an email to myself.)

My own blog was intended to be part diary, part commonplace book. Although it's never really fulfilled the latter role, it has also taken over part of my books' former contents.

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