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?