When Does a Composition Become a Composition?
A year ago, I created a good draft of 21 Miles to Coolville, a piece for solo bassoon and three accompanying bassoons, sent the score to the performer, and moved on to the next piece. As Mike Harley began learning the notes in preparation for an initial performance on a Salon concert in Philadelphia in March, I made several revisions. This final draft was then the completed manuscript, and Mike performed it along with a recording that he made of the accompanying parts. However, I never received a recording of this performance, and because it was an unofficial concert without a program, it only existed in the minds of those in attendance. It still awaited its official premiere.
On Wednesday night, this piece was performed in South Carolina. While I had to miss this concert, I had a recording in my possession by the end of the day on Friday. By Sunday morning, the piece had been posted twice to YouTube: once in a complete version with the video that I created…
…and once in an excerpt by the ensemble with selections from all the pieces on the program.
Now that I’ve combined a recording of the music with the video, the piece finally feels complete to me, a year after sending off a good draft. And yet it is not a final product, for the same ensemble will be presenting its official premiere later this month at the International Double Reed Society convention, and I surely will replace the audio for my video with the newer version.
In January, I wrote a new work for solo clarinet, the first in a series of aleatoric-form compositions that I’m calling Labyrinths. I published the score on my website, and it has been performed twice (in Chicago and in New York). Since I have yet to hear these performances, I don’t know what path(s) through the piece the performer chose to follow. In concert, some material must be omitted and other figures can follow in various combinations, so I literally do not know what the piece sounded like in either of its iterations, or even how long it lasted either time. (Based on the possible paths, I believe that its duration varies from four up to twelve minutes.) And yet, this piece felt complete to me the moment I finished the draft.
I find that for me the moment of naissance differs with each new composition. While generally the completion of a final score or a premiere performance signals completion, sometimes I feel that the process is over before I even complete a draft or before sharing it with others, leaving an odd void where the work holds meaning only for me. Other times it takes several performances before I recognize my internal vision in the piece being presented, or I might make slight revisions between each of the initial presentations.
One of the most gratifying aspects of composing music is the great amount of control that I am able to maintain over my artistic creations. In contrast to other performing arts, our relatively exact system of notation allows for the ability to communicate extraordinarily subtle ideas to the performers of our works. And yet there comes a point at which I am comfortable relaxing my grip and allowing a new piece to follow its own path.
For me, that is the point at which a composition becomes a composition.