A composer colleague was recently talking about removing compositions from her catalog; she stated that when pieces from many years ago just don’t make the cut in her mind anymore, out they go, and she repeats this process of culling older pieces every few years. Plenty of composers do this (I certainly have), and I understand that we all want to feel as if our stable of compositions represents who we are as artists in the best possible light.
But sometimes I wonder: Are we really the best judges as far as what should and should not be shared with the outside world when it comes to our own music? Are our present selves overly critical of the pieces our past selves have labored over? What is the real purpose behind our attempts to so closely control how, when, and what part of our creative output reaches beyond our individual perimeters?
These questions are on my mind because of a surprising occurrence that revolves around a composition of my own with which I have a somewhat fraught relationship. In a nutshell, I’m not sure I really believe in the piece anymore—it’s not very old, but still—and I have been seriously considering just making it go away. However, last week I received a quite unexpected email from a young musician who ordered the piece several months ago and recently performed it with her friends on her senior recital. She wrote about how much she felt that the music reflected who she has become as a person, and about how the process of rehearsing the music brought all of the musicians closer together because they found it to be a satisfying mix of difficult-yet-fun-to-play once they got the gist of it. The message was so heartfelt that I started to tear up, and when I got to the end of the email to find a photo of her at graduation, that was it; I sat on the staircase holding my smartphone early that morning and cried like a baby. Knowing that another person has been touched by something you created is a reward that is just as—if not more—satisfying than any of the composer awards that so many of us covet.
As Claire Chase states in her convocation address to the graduating class of Northwestern University, music changes us, and music is so much bigger than any one of us. With those ideas in mind, who are we to try to manipulate the perception of our creative output? What is, or could be missed by our clearing out what we see as blemishes in our catalogs? Is it possible to consider that even though you think it’s not so hot, it will rock the world of another musician or a listener? Would you change your mind about the piece if you knew that it would? One never knows…
I still have a “complicated” relationship with that piece, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel 100% comfortable with it, for a number of reasons. But am I going to strike it from my catalog? Not yet. Maybe not ever. For now, that music and I will simply agree to disagree. And the rest of the world can make up it’s own mind about it.