Juggling with Notes

I’m curious: composers, do you tend to work on one piece at a time or do you keep several projects going simultaneously? While we already do a lot of juggling in managing our compositional tasks along with other kinds of composer office-work, here I’m more interested in how one divides that precious time allotted to creative problem-solving.

In general I’m prone to working on pieces one at a time, although I’ve realized that some amount of overlap can be helpful. My relationship with new pieces is that I spend a good deal of time defining the sonic world for that piece, and more specifically its “grammar”—the underlying principles of how music is constructed in that space. So for me the initial stages of the compositional process are marked by reflection, improvisation, and a nurturing slowness. It takes time to cultivate this musical space, and oftentimes this is where much grappling and plain “stuckness” can occur.

I like keeping my projects separate so that their own distinct features and challenges come to the fore. Yet I’ve also noticed the advantages of judicious compositional multitasking. For one thing, it’s a great tool for dealing with the “stuckness” I mention above. You can only actively think at a problem for so long until further conscious intervention will cease being productive; in this case nothing will change until you sleep on it or otherwise shake out the mental circuitry. At this point, having another project to switch in—perhaps one in which many of the difficult initial decision have been made, and is at the “generate a lot of material” stage—can be another way of taking a break besides taking a complete hiatus from composing. One of the things I like about dovetailing projects is that I never really stop composing, which keeps my endurance up and helps blunt the sometimes listless state following a big project’s completion.

I would probably see diminishing returns if I tried to tackle too many projects at once, but no doubt there are composers somewhere who thrive on just that. Composers, how many projects have you juggled at once, and how did you manage to keep them all up in the air?

5 thoughts on “Juggling with Notes

  1. Ledaptu

    My first post and also Dan, I really enjoy your column.

    For me I generally have two projects going at a time: One of my “own” works and a film score. Over the past few years as I have gotten more film projects to work on, I have found that this arrangement tends to intersect or cross-pollinate the two projects. I have always realized my works through a more visual thought process: waves of sound, ballet dancers trying to avoid stepping on mousetraps, a broken piano reassembles itself, etc. So when I get a film to work on I begin to realize my thoughts about my own works with actual imagery and it tends to open up new perspectives for me; even though most of the time I employ two different styles at the same time as well: musique concrète (for my own works) and more traditional instrumentation (for film).

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  2. pgblu

    In 2003 I embarked on a project called Rausch des Vergessens (German for “rush of forgetting”) – in which I intentionally started more pieces than I could ‘juggle’ at once. All of them sort of progress/evolve in parallel, and sometimes I don’t look at any of them for months at a time. Each time I return to a piece in this cycle, I have forgotten how the sketches came about and I’m forced to empirically re-assess what I did so far, and continue on from there. I won’t say much more about it other than that it has been a wonderful learning experience so far (if only in that it reminds me how little my immediate intentions matter if they can’t be perceived) and that 2003 is a pretty darn long time ago.

    The failure to ‘juggle everything’ is not a failure to be productive.

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  3. danvisconti

    Hi pgblu, thanks for sharing. This project is very interesting to me, especially in light of your comment:

    it reminds me how little my immediate intentions matter if they can’t be perceived

    I set up similar situations from time to time, in which I become removed my intentions and come to see the piece again as it is, in itself–but I have only accomplished this via a long hiatus. I had never thought about exploring the pathway you mention–intentional “over”-saturation–as another way of getting there.

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  4. lawrence

    Dan, your post ties into something I’ve been practicing for about 20 years. I find that beginning a piece, being in the middle of a piece and finishing a piece require three different mental approaches. As a result, I try to have 3 pieces going at any given time: one I’m just beginning, one I’m in the middle of and one I am finishing up. As you point out, you can’t keep batting your head against the same problem productively without some change in perspective. When I find my head feeling a bit bruised, I switch to another piece, and thereby a different thought process, and my overall productivity stays consistent. When I come back to the first piece, I am fresh for the task at hand.

    And here’s something interesting: you say you like keeping pieces separate “so that their own distinct features and challenges come to the fore.” I’ve found that working on very different pieces simultaneously makes those distinctions even more clear. Working on three compositions at the same time keeps me from the temptation of trying to force each piece to say everything.

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  5. Jay.Derderian

    Try as I might, I can’t seem to work on more than one piece at a time. There have been a number of instances where I’ll be working on one piece, and in the process of doing so, generate seeds for another… but in all, I don’t seem to have the faculties for it.

    When I’m sketching and inking, I become so incredibly immersed in the details that if I were to suddenly stop and switch to something else, it would be like having to stop a freight train to board a huge tanker ship. Maybe if my vehicles of choice were more negotiable with their surroundings, I could reach more double bars more often.

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