Saturday, May 27, 2006

Revisionist History

Rimsky-Korsakov insisted that the act of creation could not be taught. Bartók felt the same way, so fervently that - even when desperate for money - he declined an offer from Columbia University to teach composition, preferring instead to teach piano or undertake ethnomusicological research. Even Feldman, an academic himself, warned that composition departments were merely “teaching teachers to teach teachers.”

During my years in school, I often heard uttered the following refrains: "he/she is a lousy teacher" or "he/she doesn't know how to teach." Rarely did I hear "I’m a terrible learner." Dismal teaching is a cinch to lament, but the sorry state of learning is often overlooked. Ultimately the students - not the instructors - are the losers in this game.

So how can one learn better? A helpful mantra might be "ask not what your lesson can do for you, ask what you can do for your lesson." Intuition tells me that most artists are inherently cognizant of the problematic aspects of their own work. It is therefore prudent, before seeking advice from others, to delve into one's own works, seeking to identify the weak links and formulating our insecurities into clear questions. Sometimes just initiating this process leads to a solution, allowing more time to address more refined issues in a lesson. I had been composing for 10 years before I began ‘studying’ composition; after only a few lessons I began bringing a list of questions, which steered the conversation towards the compositional choices with which I felt most uneasy. For certain mentors, such a 'pro-active' approach from the student yields very fruitful results, bringing the teacher's instincts - as opposed to their pedagogical skills, to the fore.

About ten years ago, in Den Haag, I was chatting about the thorny process of revision with my friend Peter Adriaansz, a fellow composer whom I hold in high regard. "I am a chronic reviser" he said. "It's my curse; I'm never satisfied with a piece. I rethink and rewrite until I'm absolutely satisfied. It can take years. And some of my pieces I just won't release again until I make all the necessary revisions."

I thought Peter overly dramatic. "Why don't you just write a new piece, with these insights in mind?" I asked. I showed him an orchestral score I had written recently; the work had already been performed twice, and I still wasn't entirely happy with the last section. However I had decided to leave it unrevised, as a document of my compositional mindset at the time; I explained to him my feeling that returning to that piece and reinterpreting it within my current aesthetic would be anachronistic and untrue to the original conception.

Peter smiled. "I suppose you and I are just different kinds of composers", he murmured wistfully.

His pronouncement left me feeling unsettled. What did he mean, "different kinds"? Was he passing judgment? Sure I revised, a bit, here and there. But not obsessively. Not laboriously. What did that imply about my integrity as a composer? Peter’s words resonated with me, activating a nerve in my brain.

We composers can manufacture good rationales for choosing not to alter our works once they're 'finished' (or perhaps I should say abandoned); it can be fascinating to look back on individual works as markers in the timelines of our creative lives; thus the 'documentation' rationale. And there are dozens of other possible reasons not to revise – stubbornness; superstition; a reluctance to acknowledge weakness; a fear of the great unknown; laziness; depression. But those rationales are meaningless for the dissatisfied audience member who must endure hearing our work.

I like Bill Bolcom's terminology; he refers to a weak spot as a 'sag'. Be it tonal, temporal, formal, or spiritual, a sag is a sag. And whatever the reasons for letting those sleeping sags lie, we the composers must resist the temptation; we must train our ears to recognize and correct them. For it is we – better than any teacher or critic – who are uniquely equipped to identify where weakness lies in our own works. We alone know intimately our tendencies, our proclivities, the distractions which seduce us, the habits upon which we fall back.

Around the time of my encounter with Peter, I was writing a piano piece, which I called Turning. One reason I gave the piece that title was because I could sense my compositional process beginning to shift; I had determined that I was most satisfied as a chronic reviser. These days, to the chagrin of my publisher, I tend to revise after virtually every performance. I recall my encounter with Peter and I find it hard to identify with the composer I was then.

We live in an era of marketing makeovers, in which politicians deny their mistakes, change original rationales to suit the polls of the moment, and take credit for events and trends that have nothing to do with their own policies. If politics is rooted in appearances, perhaps art (with a small ‘a’, just to be safe), is the other side of the coin: truth-telling. Such truth-telling must of necessity start with oneself, and painful questions follow: Why write this? Is this interesting? Does it go on too long? Not long enough? Is it clear? Is it muddled? Is it pretentious? Simplistic? Someone else can – and probably will – answer those questions for us, but we only become good composers when we answer them ourselves, and then make appropriate changes.

Boulez writes about the study of composition, "teaching is only a beginning; it is teaching yourself that is important." One can provide a solid foundation for composers by setting forth the essentials - harmony, analysis, counterpoint, musicianship. But the actual process of composing itself is cloaked in mystery: it is a combination of seeking and heeding one's own inspiration and making painstaking, personal decisions. Few, if any, can teach that.