10 years ago I was studying in Amsterdam with Louis Andriessen. I remember showing up one afternoon at his house on the Keizersgracht for a lesson. After the usual chit-chat he asked what I was writing, and I began to reply, "well, I have these two ideas..." "Too many!" he interrupted. Louis was joking, but he also wasn't. He has always been adept at encouraging students to reduce their ideas to the most basic elements. A decade later, I struggle with the same questions, both as a composer and an educator. Though I don't teach privately, I often tackle this issue with students in the New York Youth Symphony's Making Score program.
Young composers usually move too quickly between ideas; by this I don't mean that they use too much material, but rather that they use too many organizing principles. In my case, Louis was concerned that I recognize the musical building blocks already inherent in the musical material. So he kept encouraging me to reduce, reduce, reduce, until I was face to face with the most rudimentary gestures. He would ask, "ok, but what comes before that? and before that?" One might speculate that his "minimalist" aesthetic had something to do with this reductionist philosophy of teaching, but I think he was trying to promote a more general awareness; he was shining a light into the murkier levels of creative thinking, awakening my mind to formal structures and functionality on heretofore unexplored micro- and macro-levels.
Living in the so-called real world, we are often working on the most superficial layers of consciousness. Just addressing daily tasks and keeping the wheels of life turning uses up a great deal of energy. But as composers our calling is to access worlds hidden underneath the surface, worlds of philosophy, of theatre, of mathematics, of human instinct. Getting to the essence of a musical idea requires concentration, contemplation, and patience. Yet in the age of computers, giving full attention to musical detail can feel like dredging up a rusty relic from the past. It's so easy now to extend or shorten larges sections by cutting and pasting, to transpose with a click, to instantly move material from here to there, to add phat fonts and impressive graphics. Ironically, with the world at our fingertips, attention to the most crucial problems of form can be overlooked. In these moments of short shrift, it can be useful - even critical - to remember that technology is as dependent as anything else on the coherence of formal structures. Computers communicate through various layers of protocol; you may be working on the application/software level, the network level, or the transport level, but ultimately these layers work in tandem and are therefore dependent on each other. For a system to work as a whole, all layers must be built on consistent organizing principles; if the root level is strong, the top level will be correspondingly strong. The same applies for art.
Louis wanted me to be aware of what was happening in my music, even at levels where I was unaccustomed to poke around, and I feel grateful that he hammered these concepts home. I believe he was less interested that I reveal those levels to the listeners than he was determined that I should be able to recognize them myself. So along with the freedom to make our own aesthetic choices, we should shoulder the responsibility to analyze our own work - reducing it to the simplest elements and building it back up again. It is a powerful and empowering process, one which can help lend a work greater economy and coherence, while guiding us to become deeper and more resourceful artists.