Monday, June 30, 2008

to make an end is to make a beginning

There's a tricky point I reach in the process of writing a new piece, which is the point at which I draw a double bar line and have for the first time a complete contiguous score in front of me. it's difficult because it feels like I've completed something, whereas I've actually only reached a staging post, and from now on I've got o keep this fact in and and not succumb to the temptation to be lazy and skip all the refining.

Fortunately my composing habits help me here, as although I produce the final score on computer, I still do all the working out on paper, so what I have is actually a rather untidy hand-written manuscript that I'm now transcribing onto my PC, and as I do this I can look again at everything and make adjustments as seems necessary.

Notation programs are in many ways brilliant, in a way you can only appreciate if you've ever had to write out parts for a half-hour orchestral piece by hand, then photocopy them to make up the numbers needed for a full string section, and then tape the damn pages together, which is how I had to do it when I persuaded my schools' symphony orchestra to perform a symphony I'd written some 20 years ago. That level of drudgery is almost physically, painfully dull, and I'm very glad I now live in a world where I can just type up the score and press a button to produce a set of parts (and these days even get them copied as nicely saddle stitched booklets).

It's not quite that simple, of course, and here's one of the dangers of the technology; a lot of young composers assume that Sibelius (or whatever program they're using) will magically do everything to produce a decent set of parts. It doesn't, of course; it does do an awful lot towards it, but I've seen a lot of badly produce parts whose inadequacies stem pretty much entirely from the fact that the composer didn't bother to go through the parts and check them and tweak them. Some of this is down to inexperience (I'm always amazed how little awareness composers seem to have of what's needed in performance materials, it seems obvious to me that it's a fundamental thing to learn, preferably at first hand, which is why I don't think you can be a composer without being at s0me level a performer), but a lot of it comes down to the laziness that having beautiful-looking typesetting at the click of a mouse can engender.

At the other end, the miracle of cutting and pasting makes instant changes so easy that it's very easy to fiddle endlessly without much thought, so that huge swathes of music end up being repeated verbatim without ever really being imagined.

This is why I don't work on computer until fairly late on in the process; While the speed and ease of computers cuts a lot of work out of the preparation of a score, it can also take effort out of the composition of it, which is the one place where you shouldn't take short cuts. I need to write each note down, because somehow it doesn't feel like it's really there if I haven't. Morton Feldman said something once about having a need, a desire to copy his music out, and I think you need that if you're going to take writing music seriously; if you're not prepared to write it out how can you expect others to play or listen to it?


The manuscript is a page from the sketches for the finale of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, which raises all sorts of questions about when a piece of music is or isn't finished. More tomorrow...

No comments: