Spring cleaning is one of those tasks that many of us have been thrust into over the past few weeks. Taking the time to organize, collate, investigate, analyze, and purge is healthy and needed, but these exercises will sometimes force composers and other creative artists to face items from their past that they may not be willing to look at or even admit to their existence: their early works. One of the questions that tends to raise the most eyebrows (or groans) in my interviews has been, “What is your relationship to your early works?” and for good reason, since there are many reasons why a composer might feel compelled to keep the music of their (relative) youth out of public view. But I’ve also found that the answers to that question give insight as to who that composer is and how they see their own work.
Most composers I’ve spoken to so far started composing somewhere between their mid-teens to their early twenties, but even with composers who started very early in life, it’s relatively rare for them to have works that were written before their graduate studies that they feel comfortable having publicly performed or recorded. For quite a few composers, however, they may not have a choice, especially if they became well known at an early age or if a particular work won a national award or was recorded. In these cases, while they may privately grimace when they hear of new performances of these pieces, more often then not these composers do appreciate the fact that people still enjoy performing and listening to their music.
As one might expect, there have been a wide range of answers to the question about early works, ranging from nostalgia to indifference to arson, but what was unexpected (and telling) was exactly what each composer considered to be their “early works.” Some go to the extreme, considering almost all of their past works “early works” that they try to forget in one way or another, so as to keep a clean slate for their newer works. Most, however, tend to have at least one watershed work from their undergraduate or graduate studies that somehow signaled to them that they had turned a corner to the point that they feel comfortable with that piece staying in their current portfolio. This realization does not happen suddenly, but as each composer gathers distance and perspective, they make the decision that everything before “x” doesn’t make the cut, but for whatever reason this one early work feels “right.”
The underlying theme that runs through almost all of these conversations has been the concept of how a composer is seen and interpreted today through music they may have written years or decades earlier. The struggle between past successes and future experiments is one of the dichotomies of all creative artists; for those of us whose works are recorded in one form or another this struggle can be quite daunting, but it is up to each of us to come to terms with it and allow it to either inform our future art or at least put it into perspective.
How about you—do you have any stories of juvenilia or how you’ve decided what works to include and which ones to hide forever?