Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Knowing when to stop

Remember the Magic FingersTM machine? Once upon a time, they were installed in motels everywhere, a coin operated gadget that would shake the bed for a few minutes in return for a quarter. I suppose that it was someone's idea of a mechanized massage, but that someone was probably a Calvinist of some sort who had never actually experienced a real massage. But the Magic FingersTM machine did have one great, if unintended, attribute: it felt so good when it stopped.

When everything has gone well, a composer has that same feeling when a piece is finished, especially when all the loose ends are covered: parts made, errors corrected, posted or faxed or emailed in time for the deadline. But if the composer harbors any doubts at all, the strangest, emptiest, feeling can set in. You're not sure if the piece works or not, or if you have really done all the work, or if you have gone too far, meddled a bit too much with something that was better off the way it was before you started mucking about. Or maybe the piece was no good to begin with and no amount of adjustment is ever going to fix the thing.

When I have the luxury of a far-off deadline, I like to tinker with my pieces, especially when it comes to details. I like to load up my notation program with a half-dozen scores, decide which one works least well, and then go in and work on that one first, and then a bit on the others. Then I go through, reassess the rankings, and begin again. This process has the benefit of elevating the general level of quality, but carries the risk of going to far and throwing out some good material along the way (confession: I am miserly with my disk space, lazy about saving interim versions of pieces, and have no intention of changing these habits). It also has a slight masochistic quality to it: by continuously delaying the end of a piece, I am sustaining the euphoria of the compositional experience in exchange for delaying the feeling of satisfaction that comes with completion. Some composers work fast and never revise, others are serious revisors, taking years, if not decades to finish pieces. Analyse this if you like, but I think it takes all kinds to keep our musical lives lively.

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