Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The end is where we start from

When is something finished?

I crawl through my manuscript, typing it slowly and painstakingly onto my PC, changing notations here, making cuts there, elsewhere inserting or rewriting passages. When I've got to the final bar I'll go back again and may well see other points ripe for change. And then I may do it again.

But at what point will I decide that enough's enough? It's a question that every composer has to face. One of the composers who taught me told me that his rule of thumb is that a piece will have to be draughted about six times before it's ready. If you're lucky you might get it done by the third or fourth.

Art is never finished, only abandoned, as one artist said; some take this to extremes - Pierre Boulez designates pretty much his entire oeuvre as "work in progress", which seems a bit extreme to me. When I worked for a music publisher, often were the times that a piece seemed doomed forever to stay in revision hell - one (very fine) composer in particular had enormous trouble with the concept of letting go, and continued to tweak and tweak at scores for years after their premieres. It's one thing to rewrite music that doesn't work as well as it might, but endless tiny alterations seem top me to be a symptom of neurosis, which I guess stems from the awful pressure on composers to produce "Masterpieces" - that strange quirk of the so-called classical music world where it seems unacceptable to admit that a piece may be a great work while still containing weaknesses.

I think of Bruckner as well, re-writing his symphonies (sometimes on his own initiative, sometimes at the behest of well-meaning but misguided supporters) to such an extent that different versions stand as entirely different works that just happen to use the same material. There's a parallel to be drawn here with Boulez and his re-writes - the piece as an ever-evolving entity, that cannot be definitively fixed. This goes against the dogma of the score as Bible that underpins all SCCM since the late 19th century, the same dogma that sparks the kind of neurosis mentioned above, and perhaps, as infuriating to librarians and cataloguers as it is, it represents a way out of the straitjacket of the score, and the Masterpiece.

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