For the past approximately nine months, the main compositional focus of my life has been a song cycle based on the poetry of Stephen Crane. A 19th-century American author who died at the age of 28, he is known mostly for his 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. Some adventurous readers have additionally tackled Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, an 1893 novel about life in the slums of New York City. While both of those novels are literary landmarks for their naturalistic approach, Crane’s poems (which he preferred to call “lines”) are deeply surreal, aphoristic, and at times border on inscrutability. Rhymeless and often only a sentence or two (when they were first published they were typeset in all capital letters), most of them are extremely contemporary sounding, so it did not seem a terrible anachronism for me to want to set them to music in the 21st century.
I first had the idea for setting his poetry in early December, about a month after learning I had received a commission to write a song cycle from the ASCAP Foundation Charles Kingsford Fund. I spent the next couple of months scouring through Crane’s entire poetic output trying to figure out which ones would work set to music (particularly music I would want to write), how many I should ultimately choose, and then how the poems I chose would fit together to form a whole. To get myself further into Crane’s head, I also re-read both Red Badge and Maggie. I did not start composing a single note of music until March 25, at which point I had already identified the 12 poems I wanted to include in the cycle, as well as their order. While I frequently will create a structural framework in which to work and then start composing actual music somewhere in the middle, for this project I actually began at the beginning and pretty much completed setting the first poem for the cycle that day. But then I jumped to the fifth poem and, shortly thereafter, to the twelfth and very last song in the cycle. For the most part, all of the subsequent songs were created between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.—the daily regimen I’ve put myself on to work on composition every day—although ideas sometimes came to me at other hours and I spent a few afternoons and evening testing things out on the piano. (For the sake of neighborliness, I opted against banging on a piano before sunrise.) Throughout the process, my original order for the twelve poems remained intact with only one switch. (The setting of the fifth poem inspired an idea for the setting of poems five through eight, but as they got fleshed out it made more sense to swap the order of six and seven.) Anyway, by last week eleven of the twelve songs were done, and late on Saturday afternoon I completed the remaining one, which is actually the ninth in the sequence.
I’ve recounted all this, including more details of the process than you perhaps need to know, because since Saturday afternoon I’ve been ruminating on what it means to complete a musical composition. Although all of the songs are done, in that I have composed them all and have engraved them all, I have yet to play through them all (physically singing and playing the piano or even via the MIDI protocols on my computer) for myself, let alone other people, and have not even printed them all out on paper. I have yet to present the score to the performers and work through all the minutiae of the piece; undoubtedly there will be a few changes here and there, and perhaps there are even some misprints in what I wrote. So is the piece actually done? And did I start composing it on March 25 or months before when I started compiling the texts? If I keep revising it up until the premiere (unlikely, but who knows), will it not be complete until the premiere? Some might argue (along the lines of that tree falling in the forest) that until other people hear it, it doesn’t really exist. Even in the extremely unlikely event that it was someday performed at Madison Square Garden, it would only reach a finite number of people unless it were also recorded and/or made available online. When should something enter history? And if by some unfortunate circumstance it never gets recorded and is not heard again after a poorly attended premiere, does it even qualify for becoming a part of history?
I ask these questions because musicologists get really obsessed about when things were written, as if that’s the only date that counts. Admittedly, I do, too—I keep extensive lists of when various of compositions were written as a way to remind myself that a clear stylistic zeitgeist is as much a panacea for anytime in the past as it is for the present. But time can be elusive. The debate about when Charles Ives composed certain pieces or which versions of the Bruckner symphonies are definitive (since he kept revising them) have been extremely contentious among certain scholars, but perhaps we give too much weight to the calendar. Ultimately determining a precise timeframe is not so cut and dried, nor should it be. Ideally, music is a living and ongoing process. While I’m not quite ready to consider my song cycle done and start working on another piece of music—though this will happen very soon—that piece will hopefully continue to evolve through others’ interpretations of it. After all, isn’t that what any composer would hope for?