Wednesday, June 04, 2008


"Whilst traveling through the Andes Mountains, we lost our corkscrew. Had to live on food and water for several days!" W.C. Fields, in Mississippi (1935)

Whether composing, playing, or listening to a piece of music, serious engagement brings one ever closer to what might be called the essence of the piece, which is a quantity both more and less than the sum of the notes on the page. More than the notes, because when everything works, things happen which are never written down, cannot be written down, whether in a physical or psychological domain. Less than the notes, because notes are not yet the music and, indeed, almost any old note, if the moment is right, can just be thrown away and it's all to the better of the music.

When I'm not officially composing, that is to say composing in order to put bread on the table, I can almost always sit down and write a piece. But when the composing is real -- commission and performance already agreed -- I can't sit down, in fact, I can't even get near my desk, until I have some even vague idea of what the piece is supposed to be, the idea at its core, its essence. To get to that point, composing is often doing everything but: taking long walks, bicycling, cooking some obscurity, doing minor house repairs, taking on a difficult translation job, shuttling the kids about to sports and lessons. The more mindless the activity the better, all the better to excavate, carve, trim, and pare away at the mess of ideas that is the work in progress until nothing, no idea, is left but the right one. And once you're there, the rest of the work, which is all of the work that most folk usually think of as composing (sketching, drafting, scoring, testing, inking, computing etc.) , is just elaboration, just food and water.

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