Adding by Subtracting

delete buttonRecently, 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.

6 thoughts on “Adding by Subtracting

  1. Kyle Gann

    “The eraser is the important end of the pencil.” – Arnold Schoenberg
    “Composing is easy – you just write down all the notes, and then take out the ones you don’t need.” – Claude Debussy

    Reply
  2. Brighton

    Dave that’s so true. Copland comes to mind. Sparse but powerful.
    I have also uncovered gems by deleting shit I thought was clever.

    Reply
  3. mclaren

    This description illustrates a fascinating change in how music has come to be composed over the last 60 years. A few decades back, “serious” contemporary music, to qualify as having any value at all, had to exhibit dense internal structure in which every note was governed and directed by a labyrinthine panoply of intercessant systems and organization subsystems, series within series, row upon row… Rhythmic series, timbral series, rank upon rank of interlocking interdependent organizational schemes. Pitch governed duration, which in turn determined timbre, and so on.

    How times have changed.

    Back in the bad old days of “total organization” in music, it would have been as impossible to delete superfluous notes as it would be to get rid of the outermost row of corn in a cornfield.

    Freeing up contemporary cmopositon from all that mania for system and structure and left-brain schemata has let in a breath of fresh air which allows for the possibility of intuition, imagination, caprice, and of course all those forbidden musical values like emotion (the dreaded E word) and musical drama, not to mention the ultimate dirty words: “charm” and “prettiness” and “fun” (perish the thought!).

    Reply
  4. Phil Fried

    Two things Mclaren:

    The complex or rigorous jargon filled explanations of recent works, (even consonant or tonal ones) continue in university and college seminars everywhere.

    As for form; humor, music drama, and emotion, (to name a few) are not easily achieved without it.

    Reply
  5. Smooke

    Thank you all for your comments. It’s especially nice to get those fantastic quotes. And overdoing the composing is a phenomenon that knows no pre-compositional boundaries!

    I should probably also point out that the piece has undergone further and further revising, with more and more being removed at each stage and it is finally getting closer to being ready.

    – David

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Performers as Co-Composers, an opinion post by R. Andrew Lee | I Care if You Listen

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