Friday, June 08, 2012

Loose Ends

Are you composing?  What are you up to?  In principal, yes, but there are all these loose ends... There are always several projects on my desk, in various stages of progress.  Some are compositional projects, others pre-compositional or even theoretical.  One compositional project is, in principle, finished, a piece with a very large number of possible realizations through combinatorial excess, but I've decided not to let it go until I've played through a number of those realizations to my own satisfaction, which has meant picking up the clarinet for the first time in decades and seeing if the music lies under the fingers well.  One "theoretical" project was a fictional reconstruction of tonality in which, depending upon the number of active voices, everything depended upon minimal voice leadings from the three perfectly even divisions of the octave.  My constraints turned out not to be limiting enough and the whole system fell apart under the sheer number of possible voice leadings.  Another theoretical adventure treated moves across tonal manifolds (or lattices) as optimal transportation problems, which still seems to me to be a good idea, but the math required to be comfortable with the optimal transportation literature is still beyond me.*  Such projects, even if they ultimately fall apart on you, at least keep the mind nimble and very often help, if only in details, in getting work done. (Learning about Gray Codes (and Beckett Grays in particular), for example, even though I can't really follow the mathematical literature, has provided me with a really useful formal resource which I've used in at least a dozen pieces to date, sometimes overtly, for instance to control the scoring patterns in a piece, more often hidden (you hide, they seek.)) One larger project of the past three or four years has been a search for a libretto; texts have been read and re-read, considered and re-considered as musical material, and even some sketches have been made: divisions into scenes and acts and songs and not-quite-songs, and voice types and instrumental resources. But most ideas eventually get tossed for one reason or another. I've wanted to work with an existing text in the public domain, to avoid the complications of securing rights (the librettist for my puppet opera passed away before the music was finished and working with his estate has not been particularly easy.) But existing texts have their own problems, not least because setting something dramatic to music usually requires a massive reduction in the volume of a text, to a fraction, say a third or less, of the original. Maybe one reason why literary masterpieces seldom recommend themselves to setting to music is that they are just damn hard to slim down — you want to save all your favorite lines, even when they get in the way of wherever the music needs to go.  I've made the problem harder in that I'm determined to do something comic rather than historical or tragic, and comic dialog has to move along and that I have some fairly experimental musical ambitions that I'd like to try as well.  I'm now fairly certain about the source text I'll use and have already edited the text for the first act and started sketching a pair of scenes to use as a trial balloon. Following loose ends keeps you busy and also keeps you looking forward: composing is always about the next piece.

* I came across optimal transportion problems through the work of mathematician Cédric Villani and then again, when Francis Spufford's remarkably odd novel Red Plenty, pointed in the direction of the mathematician and economist Leonid Kantorovich.  

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