I’ve been following the “Top Ten” activities that Anthony Tommasini has been spearheading in the New York Times over the past few weeks with rolled eyes and knowing nods. While it was amusing to watch him squirm through the gerrymander of limitations through which he’d forced himself—can one imagine similar limitations with best filmmakers? Best poets?—I will admit pangs of déjà vu when the process came down to making the cuts further down the list. In most selection-type lists, the first few will come easy, but the closer one gets to the end of the list, the more agonizing the decisions.
It was the same for me when I began to create the list of composers that I would reach out to and schedule interviews with for my project. Obviously it’s somewhat difficult to have a book of interviews without subjects, so it was pretty important to get started on that part very early on. It didn’t take long for the pangs of doubt to begin—who was I to be making such decisions, what filters would stand up to scrutiny, how wide of a net would I be casting, and so forth. The one advantage I had was that no one knew about the project, so I didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing the results of the first few experiments and could therefore flail away on my laptop and yellow notepads for a couple of weeks until I started to feel comfortable with the direction and possibilities that the initial list of composers (which first numbered 30) was posing to me.
After a few weeks of living with that first list, nagging concerns began to whisper in my ear that the list needed some tweaking; soon it grew to 36, then to 40, and finally it was during my first expedition to New York City in June that I realized that I could push the project up to 50 composers. Each of these evolutions forced me to re-evaluate the original concepts of the book. One of those concepts was that the project would serve to expose as many different types of composers to both the public and the music community as possible. In addition, keeping the selection process overly strict would have soon forced a competitive bent to the book (which I was personally against), and it was these two ideas that allowed me to feel confident that the decision to expand the book to its current size was a good one.
As I’ve been outlining this process, two thoughts spring to mind. First, I fully admit that if you compare my process to Tommasini’s, I cheated. Technically I moved the goalposts after gave myself a set of guidelines, but my context was different (last I checked, millions of readers were not scanning my Google docs) and I decided that it was better to improve the quality of the work through expanding the breadth and depth of the content rather than hew to an almost-arbitrary number which had been based on an average number of interviews other similar books had undertaken. To be honest, I wish Tommasini had made a similar cheat and decided to expand his list as well, but his context (and his editors) probably made that an impossibility.
Secondly, this process of decision-making is sounding very much like a work-flow for composing a piece, or for that matter curating a concert series. Not being afraid of flailing away in the privacy of one’s own notebook quiets down the nagging concerns for a bit and allows that whole “creative” thing to happen. Once a basic shape/concept/draft has been given the chance to emerge, then the nagging concerns can be given a chance to whisper away and the tweaking process can begin. What is important is that we allow ourselves the ability to move the goalposts when appropriate, and recognize when the “right” conclusion has been reached.