Adding by Subtracting
Recently, I’ve been revising a piece in advance of its premiere while working with the player for whom it was composed. These revisions have mainly consisted of scouring through the score and removing superfluous notes. The process of deleting notes has helped to create a better piece.
Anyone who has created an interior design scheme or planned a garden understands the phenomenon of adding by subtracting. Removing the clutter allows the important elements to stand out more clearly. Something that might have been missed against an ornate background can often shine when placed within an austere setting. A small black dot will be lost in a sea of color but might be immediately perceptible on a white sheet.
As I’m composing, I often forget that grand gestures can often be sharper and stronger when extraneous details are removed in order to focus the sound, that pulsing music can be groovier when silence begins to obscure the beat, that desperate flailing can be expressed with one horrific held sound. As I write a new piece, I like to fill in all the details, to create a fully fleshed-out being that can live and breathe by itself. At times, these details overburden the skeleton, creating monsters that crush themselves under their own weight or are simply less nimble than I had expected they would be due to their extra heft.
I very much enjoy the process of going through scores and finding notes that I can remove. As I started composing, my biggest fear was that my ideas weren’t interesting enough, and so at times I believe that these extraneous details are my attempt to hide. For me, the overt ornamentation can serve to obfuscate the basic structure so its inherent quality hardly matters. While I no longer am trying to create an opaque texture, at times I naturally find myself adding details until I’ve buried the inner structure of the music. This is why each deletion allows me to feel that I’ve won a small victory over my inner demons. And I’m finding that I am gaining confidence in the basic nature of my music, that I have something to say as a composer, that I can allow my musical frameworks to shine.
I think of the process of deleting notes as being one of honing the composition. Just as we sharpen a blade by scraping imperfections off the edge, the act of removing notes from a passage can allow it to penetrate the consciousness more easily. Sometimes subtracting details can allow a piece of music to more fully express its nature.