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.


Anonymous said...

Hey Derek,

Great post. I responded on my blog.

Peter Adriaansz said...

hey Derek,

scouring the internet trying to retrieve some lost dates, I ran into your wise little blog: how nice and curious to run into my name under the context of manic reviser! I recollect this must have been sometime in 1998 or earlier? and like you, I read this and wonder:"who was this guy?" "Did I really say this?!"
Like you, many things have changed since then and I suspect that we've probably switched positions in the meantime and undoubtedly someday they'll meet up at exactly the same point!
By now, I would never take out a vast amount of time to revise anything. The lack of available time aside, it mostly indicates the piece just doesn't work and we're unwilling to admit so! Better to toss it and carry on. Besides, there's really nothing more horrible than living through an old piece, we really want to move on. But I think a lot of these problems are really just solved through experience: at a certain point you simply dont put out anything, which would need major revisions in the first place.
But just to update you on my current views re revising: if the piece is good and the revisions are mere practical technicalities we've learned about during the rehearsal and performance procedures, all revision is necessary to make sure the score is as clear as it can be. If however the revisions are of a much more fundamental nature, relating to the entire concept of the piece, it's probably more worthwhile to just dump the piece, although of course, that point should have been thought of at an earlier stage. I believe the only real point of revision is putting out a score that leaves no room for doubt about its' realisation: it's your final point before saying goodbye to the piece once and for all! (after which you disown it and are utterly bored by it!)
But I think a major point is the following..
A lot of this is of course allied to our wishes to achieve 'perfection' of some sort and maybe this whole idea of 'perfection' betrays an underlying sense of insecurity about a piece's ability to portray our total competence. Of course, some pieces call for perfection and then they must be so, but underlying a lot of this quest are aspects of 'mastery', which, more often than not, are imposed on us by factors outside the actual piece and actually have the danger of determining more of the sounding result than we really would like to admit. As you know of course, many free scores, with huge discrepancies between what's notated and what we actually hear, can also be perfect in their way... though they leave millions of question marks in their run. And maybe that's the greatest danger about revision: it's a form of giving in to a mastery syndrome, which can also be quite superficial. Living in the West and being dictated to a great deal by its cultural dictates and history - and all of its rampant individualism in which people really have a desparate need to admire... and we're expected to supply - the whole aspect of mastery (and in its slipstream, revision in order to achieve it) can be quite constricting as to what, I think at least, the real nature of music should be: a manner in which to edify and liberate... mostly from exactly these kind of paralysing restrictions!

Anyway, thank you so much for this opportunity to think about something I really haven't thought about in a while! Hoping all's well!