Constraints on Creativity
I’ve been visiting my parents down in Knoxville this week, and while describing the pieces I’m currently composing they asked me a good question: why don’t I call a thirty-minute composition for cello and piano a sonata?
As I tried to explain why the piece wasn’t really a sonata, my father interjected that he had gotten it now: “I see, you probably don’t want to be encumbered by all the constraints that come with traditional forms.”
That’s half true: while it is the case that sonata form in particular would have been an ungainly straitjacket for my project, it is not true—although many people seem to assume it–that I and most contemporary composers take issue with musical constraints per se; in fact, I thrive on constraints, just as I expect many composers do.
For me, asking “what form is this piece in?” is really asking two important questions: how is time divided into sections, and perhaps more importantly, what is the relationship between the sections? Right now I’m also working on a longish string quartet, in which I’ve opted to make every movement a kind of “broken” song. The movements are unambiguously tonal songs, but from the (often limiting) implications of that choice come some interesting ideas (including a strophic song in which each verse doubles in length, and a set of two mini-movements each for only two players that are ultimately combined into a third statement for the entire quartet. It’s one of the most challenging feats of counterpoint I’ve yet attempted, and not something that would have occurred to me without the need to somehow work around my initial mandate. It’s in this sense that I find working with restrictions inspiring, not stifling—whether they arise out of form, genre, or even the need to write for a pianist with only one functional hand.