Tabula Rasa

I’ve always been amused by the idea of New Year’s resolutions—how through an event as impersonal and arbitrary as the changing of the calendar year, normal weak-willed humans can somehow find enough of an impetus to finally begin that exercise (or score study!) regimen that had earlier seemed out of reach. Why is it that humans (this one included) have such a hard time making significant behavioral changes without the psychic ass-kicking of a holiday or other significant life event?

When I first became aware of this particular New Year’s ritual, I tended to regard the whole thing as silly. After all, there’s another part to the ritual, when the gyms begin to empty out in February, and the whole process of putting things off until X magic date seemed like a big, culturally-subsidized rationalization.

With a few more years and many or my own New Year’s successes and failure under my belt, I can say that I now have a real appreciation for the psychological effect of a “clean start.” (Sympathy follows fairly quickly when you’ve been alive long enough to join the ranks of the culpable. At frighteningly late age I actually put off the date I planned to quit procrastinating, without perceiving the obvious irony until much later). Clean starts help us focus the boring, long-term discipline of maintaining any behavioral change into a single memorable moment, the memory itself often becoming an icon or totem to meditate on. A clean start made in public (as is often the case with New Year’s resolutions) is a great way to create accountability. And in creative work especially, clean starts help us to step back and attack problems in a fresh way.

While I have many times found this technique useful in my own composing work, lately I find myself wanting to take the idea even farther. But the one thing I can’t do (at least without some majorly invasive physical or chemical meddling) is to hear a piece of music I know very well for the first time. Just think what a gift it would be to just forget the B Minor Mass in its entirety. It would be a kind of manufactured innocence, I suppose—all those great moments awaiting to be discovered all over again, accompanied by that “first time” sense of suspense that can only come from unfamiliarity. There are many musical works that I’d love to hear for the first time again, for many different reasons. But since I am myself a composer, I suppose it’s natural that I should want to experience my own music for the first time, too.

I’m not sure how other composers feel about the role of premieres in this respect, but while they’re always exciting and deeply formative experiences they hardly constitute a genuine first hearing for me. Without even counting rehearsals, by the time I’ve finished a piece I’ve already heard the damn thing ad nauseum—as well as all the variants that didn’t make the cut. In fact, I’m usually so thoroughly bored by my newly completed pieces that I’m honestly thankful for the large gap between receipt of score and premiere that is the bane of most notated music. What I’d give not just for a clean start, but a clean slate—to hear the piece develop on its own, free of the messy and often frustrating process that gave it birth.

I would be interested to see if this desire is specific to myself or widespread—secretly, I suspect, it may be universal among composers and other creative workers. And if my hunch is right, I’m hoping to find out if anyone has any particular work habits or tips to recapture that feeling of unfamiliarity…especially ones that don’t involve brain surgery!

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