There are few things in life that I find quite as humbling as embarking on the first draft of a new piece. At this stage, the recently completed composition generally appears to be the paragon of perfection (it surely will reveal its flaws at a later date), especially in contrast to my hazy vision of the work ahead. The new path appears dark and poorly mapped, rife with snares and labyrinthine dead ends.
The inspiration for a new piece generally arises for me as a single idea—a vision of a sound that I believe requires further exploration. Sometimes this germinating spore appears—like Athena—fully formed from my head; at other times it’s a vague hunch. The degree of exploration required at the next stage depends on the clarity of this initial concept.
In the instances when I am least confident, I often begin by sketching various musical fragments without regard to how they might fit into a larger whole. These snippets might be examples of affects that interest me in that particular piece, attempts at opening or closing gestures, or comparatively idiomatic or unusual ways of treating the current instrumentation.
For pieces that begin with more specific thoughts, I often draw a loose graph of the intended structure for the finished composition. I utilize the largest paper I can find (lately desk blotting pads) and run a timeline along the bottom, over which I pencil in relative section weights along with written descriptions of the types of gestures that will comprise those sections. In some compositions I adhere remarkably closely to this gestalt diagram; however, I forgot about the drawing I created before starting my most recent piece and was somewhat surprised to find it buried under a stack of manuscript paper when I had completed the composition (the resulting piece bore little resemblance to the structure I initially sketched).
When I feel satisfied with the results derived from this initial phase, I move into writing the piece itself. I invariably jettison the first three to fifteen drafts of the opening, since with each one I become more confident in my ability to sense how the timing works and how material might connect through the entire composition. Sometimes, I’ll write well into a work before realizing how dismal my initial ideas truly were. I save all the sketches (even the embarrassing ones) and sometimes refer to them while completing that project, but I have yet to peruse these drafts while generating material for newer projects.
I feel the need to remind myself of this process, because I’m beginning a new piece—one that is larger than any I’ve attempted to date—and I’m frightened. Staring into the void, I always feel somewhat listless and despondent, and so I comfort myself with reminders that such feelings are (at least for me) normal rather than pathological. Part of the amazing resiliency of humans derives from our inability to clearly remember the experience of pain and discomfort. And so I keep driving myself into new projects whether or not I’m truly ready to blaze the path outlined above.
If all goes well, I soon will find myself in the middle of the piece and will have again forgotten the difficulties of the first draft.