Developing an Act

In speaking with other composers, there are always so many questions I’d like to ask them about their music and how they went about putting it together: What were you thinking when you wrote this passage? What kind of stylistic influences informed your writing? Under what circumstances was the work conceived? However, if I were allotted only a single query for these situations, I’d make sure to ask the question that most consistently seems to reveal a composer’s fundamental character, namely: What is your attitude toward revision?

At the most basic level, there is a broad spectrum of approaches when it comes to tinkering with a “finished” notated piece, between those who endlessly tinker and those who (for various reasons) end up relatively content with their composition’s first incarnation. Sometimes the composer’s skill and the amount of time he or she had to work with have something to do with the decision to revise, but more often is has to do with the composer’s attitude and aesthetic predilections. Many composers are predisposed to tinkering, or simply have very high expectations for how closely their musical result ought to approximate their idea. Many know they likely won’t have time to revise, and approach the first draft accordingly. Some composers are not disposed to revising in general, but will consider it when something truly “goes wrong” or the prospect of more performances tempts a little finessing.

Yet the above attitudes toward revising apply to just one particular situation: that in which a composer intends for there to exist a final, “best” version of a given composition.

This is, of course, the situation in which many composers find themselves—especially composers whose goal is a document than can inspire performances with or without their own physical presence. But what about improvisers, singer-songwriters, composer/performers, DJs, and many for whom the distinction between revising and composing becomes almost meaningless?

It goes without saying that improvisers, DJs, and their ilk make tweaks all the time—it’s just that without the pressing need for a “definitive” version of the work, these tweaks become part of a continuous composing session rather than something appended to the compositional act.

While a notated composition forces us to choose our “best effort”, those who follow a favorite DJ, jam band, or even comedy act would attest that there’s also something to be said for a style of expression that is less rigidly controlled and is constantly adapting to the situation at hand. At the same time, music expressed through a notated score can potentially receive many more performances in more diverse geographic locations—something that still makes this old-fashioned mode of dissemination pretty hip.

As someone who spends a lot of time working with traditionally notated music, I’m always eager to bring ideas from folk and improvised sources into play—and to bring notated concert music up to date and in line with the level of excitement, timbral richness, and interactivity that makes the best pop music so engaging. Developing an act is about experimenting and responding to experience, and one that emphasizes the process of exploration as much as the discoveries; most of all, it’s a way of working that takes audience feedback into account as an essential part of the creative effort. So I wonder if it might be possible to develop a notated ensemble piece in a way that is likewise constantly evolving and defined?

I’ve recently completed a work that will be premiered more or less simultaneously by three piano trios. Based respectively in Boston, Toronto, and Salt Lake City, the groups will tour with the piece during the 2012/13 concert season. Knowing these details, I decided that I wanted a way to make each group’s performances unique and particular; so I wrote a piece in the form of several very short “modular” movements that can be played in any order—this is determined by each ensemble, who may settle upon a “favorite” configuration or change things up for each performance. Over time I’ll put new movements into rotation, so that the “building blocks” of the piece change to reflect my current thinking and audience input. It’s a kind of “act” developed over time with input balanced between myself and the performing ensembles, who each may continue to shape the work in profound ways long after the premiere performances.

It feels good to be revising some music for once not because of a mistake, but as the next step in an ongoing creative collaboration. When I was younger, I shied away from revising after imbibing the notion that making changes to my work indicated weakness or failure; but now I’ve realized that my work needs to grow, change, and react to stimuli from audiences and collaborators in order to truly be its best.

6 thoughts on “Developing an Act

  1. Santa Ana

    Thank you for this interesting post. I really appreciate a mentality that is open to re-engaging with a work that is both finished and being realized at each given performance. And also that invites listeners and musician’s alike to contribute to its ‘best’ version.

    A recently completed work for string quartet that I worked on has 720 different versions of itself using some of the modular construction you describe, the only difference is that instead of doing discrete sections of music that were reordered at each performance, my quartet overlaps entire sections of music to transition from one section to the next. This creates ‘new’ inner compositions of overlapping material that rely on improvisation and interaction, which end up contrasting one’s hearing of the seemingly ‘fixed’ material.

    Being able to see the differences from one performance to another, as you describe with a DJ or comedy sketch, is the type of interactive experience that I think listeners can connect with and bring their own sense of memory, apprehension, and awareness. As Claire Bishop writes in the introduction to “Participation,” an anthology of essays about audience response to art works, “…every reception of a work on art is both an interpretation and a performance of it.”

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  2. j109

    That’s a cool idea (the modular thing). I usually avoid revising, mainly because each piece is so reflective of an individual moment in my compositional development and I find it difficult to throw my heart back into a work. If the revision of something is a fairly minor task (like tweaking some voice-leading), I’ll probably revise, but if I take on anything major the result is usually pretty smooth and conventional within the context of the work (no more inspiration for twists or turns). Usually this smoothing out is a good thing, but nevertheless it never makes it better than what I think I could do with a new work.

    Sometimes I’ll take older pieces that are pretty shallow (especially miniatures) and gut them for material if appropriate for a newer work. This has worked very well and it’s very satisfying since the original material is truly elevated in the new context. That said, I’ve never sought publication or wide distribution, so the ‘identity’ of an individual work is mostly in my hands (for instance, if I gut a piece and use its material for a section in another, it’s as if the original never existed).

    I have a question for (non-self-)published composers: how do revised editions work? Is it just a matter of letting them know what changes you want made before they print new copies, or is it like having a whole new work published (or something in between depending upon the revision, or does it vary from place to place)?

    Also, have any of you ever gutted an old work for a new one and then retracted the original? Or have you just let the old one stand as a kind of a prototype?

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  3. Joseph Holbrooke

    It is worth mentioning that what you are calling ‘modular’ is the single most common format for live contemporary music in use today. The resulting performance is referred to as a ‘set.’ The unique order and inclusion of pieces is what drives interest in set lists. One resource: http://www.setlist.fm/

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  4. j109

    ‘Set’ usually implies a grouping of clearly distinct works. I took the modular design he describes to refer to a work with indeterminate movement order and choice, but which nevertheless still gives the listener the impression of a unified multi-movement work. For instance, if one composed 50 variation movements but directed the performer to choose 20, it would still sound like one multi-movement work despite the indeterminacy, but Aerosmith doing a set of their 20 greatest hits would not sound like a 20-movement work.

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  5. Santa Ana

    A “set” includes a number of musical portions or segments that may or may not belong together. It is a different matter when a composer builds a flexible form or ‘impermanent’ large-scale form into the work itself, and cogently places those sections or segments together in a continuous flow of music. This creates a work with alternative chronologies that changes each time the work is realized, and I believe this is what Dan was referring to when he says that performances can continue to be shaped, even after they are composed. Although I’m not sure if the work that he refers to flows as a single unified piece…

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  6. danvisconti

    Hi all and thanks for the comments! To clarify, yes I was suggesting a single unified work rather than a simple shuffling of songs. It’s true that setlists are roughly analagous to the idea I put forward, but it’s more of a “macro” level ordering of finished parts and I’m more interested in creating individual works/songs that constantly remix themselves from a few reconizable compenents. The piece of mine I was describing lets performers (and audience) partially determine ordering of events, and as each sections material is derived from the one that precedes it, this leads to a rippling effect where seemingly insignificaant decisions resonate to the point of having a major effect on the musical process down the line.

    Santa Ana, that sounds like a very cool idea for the string quartet! I’m continually impressed by the many ways that a simple idea can inspire diverse, extremely personal ways of thinking for different people.

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