Developing an Act

Developing an Act

If I were allotted only a single question to ask any composer about their music, I’d make sure to ask the question that most consistently seems to reveal a composer’s fundamental character, namely: What is your attitude toward revision?

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In speaking with other composers, there are always so many questions I’d like to ask them about their music and how they went about putting it together: What were you thinking when you wrote this passage? What kind of stylistic influences informed your writing? Under what circumstances was the work conceived? However, if I were allotted only a single query for these situations, I’d make sure to ask the question that most consistently seems to reveal a composer’s fundamental character, namely: What is your attitude toward revision?

At the most basic level, there is a broad spectrum of approaches when it comes to tinkering with a “finished” notated piece, between those who endlessly tinker and those who (for various reasons) end up relatively content with their composition’s first incarnation. Sometimes the composer’s skill and the amount of time he or she had to work with have something to do with the decision to revise, but more often is has to do with the composer’s attitude and aesthetic predilections. Many composers are predisposed to tinkering, or simply have very high expectations for how closely their musical result ought to approximate their idea. Many know they likely won’t have time to revise, and approach the first draft accordingly. Some composers are not disposed to revising in general, but will consider it when something truly “goes wrong” or the prospect of more performances tempts a little finessing.

Yet the above attitudes toward revising apply to just one particular situation: that in which a composer intends for there to exist a final, “best” version of a given composition.

This is, of course, the situation in which many composers find themselves—especially composers whose goal is a document than can inspire performances with or without their own physical presence. But what about improvisers, singer-songwriters, composer/performers, DJs, and many for whom the distinction between revising and composing becomes almost meaningless?

It goes without saying that improvisers, DJs, and their ilk make tweaks all the time—it’s just that without the pressing need for a “definitive” version of the work, these tweaks become part of a continuous composing session rather than something appended to the compositional act.

While a notated composition forces us to choose our “best effort”, those who follow a favorite DJ, jam band, or even comedy act would attest that there’s also something to be said for a style of expression that is less rigidly controlled and is constantly adapting to the situation at hand. At the same time, music expressed through a notated score can potentially receive many more performances in more diverse geographic locations—something that still makes this old-fashioned mode of dissemination pretty hip.

As someone who spends a lot of time working with traditionally notated music, I’m always eager to bring ideas from folk and improvised sources into play—and to bring notated concert music up to date and in line with the level of excitement, timbral richness, and interactivity that makes the best pop music so engaging. Developing an act is about experimenting and responding to experience, and one that emphasizes the process of exploration as much as the discoveries; most of all, it’s a way of working that takes audience feedback into account as an essential part of the creative effort. So I wonder if it might be possible to develop a notated ensemble piece in a way that is likewise constantly evolving and defined?

I’ve recently completed a work that will be premiered more or less simultaneously by three piano trios. Based respectively in Boston, Toronto, and Salt Lake City, the groups will tour with the piece during the 2012/13 concert season. Knowing these details, I decided that I wanted a way to make each group’s performances unique and particular; so I wrote a piece in the form of several very short “modular” movements that can be played in any order—this is determined by each ensemble, who may settle upon a “favorite” configuration or change things up for each performance. Over time I’ll put new movements into rotation, so that the “building blocks” of the piece change to reflect my current thinking and audience input. It’s a kind of “act” developed over time with input balanced between myself and the performing ensembles, who each may continue to shape the work in profound ways long after the premiere performances.

It feels good to be revising some music for once not because of a mistake, but as the next step in an ongoing creative collaboration. When I was younger, I shied away from revising after imbibing the notion that making changes to my work indicated weakness or failure; but now I’ve realized that my work needs to grow, change, and react to stimuli from audiences and collaborators in order to truly be its best.