Musical Revisionism

I had a great time interviewing two very intriguing composers during my trek to New York City a couple of weeks ago, and one of the many subjects that stuck with me during our talks was the concept of revising one’s works after their premiere performances. Before I had begun this project, the knee-jerk comment I used to hear constantly about revisions was that they were a bad idea—”better to put it to bed and fix things in the next piece” or some such idea. I can easily see why a pedagogue would give these words of wisdom to a young composer—the last thing you want during the formative years is for a student to continually re-write the same piece over and over to the detriment of her or his portfolio. I am, however, firmly entrenched in the revisionist camp for many of my works, and it was both enlightening and cathartic to hear both sides of this issue brought forth by my two colleagues.

When it comes to the topic of revising one’s music, there are a great many different concepts and attitudes towards what can and should be revised, and discovering how one composer revises their works can offer a great amount of insight into their mindset when they are composing the work to begin with. The simplest of revisions is purely technical—notation can be made to be more (or less) specific, instructions can be added to reduce confusion in later rehearsals, tempi that were adjusted in rehearsals can be updated and errata lists can be incorporated into the score and parts. This “paper” revision seems to be the least controversial and most common; there are inevitably some items on the existing score that will need to be changed after the rehearsal process and most composers look at this as a necessary last step before they can put the score away and consider it finished.

There are times, however, when simply polishing the existing score is not sufficient for a composer. It is at this juncture that each artist must make that excruciating decision of whether or not to jump back into the creative process on the piece in front of him or her or to leave it be and push ahead to the next assignment. There are several questions inherent in this decision-making process, including how much time one wants (or has) to revisit the work, how extensive the revisions need to be, and how each composer feels about changing their work. Whether or not a composer is comfortable with going back and reworking their piece on a musical level—excising or creating entire sections, pulling down large chunks of material to its component parts and rebuilding them, or diving into a massive re-orchestration project—will determine how far they choose to go into this “content” revision phase.

The composers in question were appropriate examples of both types of attitudes; one rarely made even slight changes to the score after the first performance, while the other labeled himself a “compulsive” reviser who freely went back and reworked pieces several times over the years until he was satisfied. What I find most fascinating is how these conflicting methods illustrate two important aspects of composing music for live performers: the process of writing a musical score, which allows for an immense amount of control by the creator prior to the audience’s interaction with the work (far more than in any other art form), lives side-by-side with the mysterious alchemic gamble that each composer takes when they attempt to convey what they’re hearing in their head to the performers through the middleman that is the score. Both methods are relatively common with today’s composers—a fact that would be well-remembered by future scholars when considering what role the “original” version of a piece plays in the life of the composer who wrote it.

I’d love to hear about other concepts and issues regarding composers revising works—comment at your leisure!

2 thoughts on “Musical Revisionism

  1. ComposerJim

    Hi Rob –

    Great discussion topic.
    I often get this question.

    Unfortunately, for me, the question is more one of practicality.
    Because my family’s financial security is very dependent on my “job” as a composer, I always have to move on to the next project. All of my scores that have accompanied me to premieres are marked up with dynamic changes, circled sections that could stand to be tweaked for one reason or another, or other small corrections. In a perfect world, I would head home and spend two weeks correcting what I thought necessary, and then issue the final publication.
    But, I don’t have that time, as there is always (fortunately) the next piece that needs to be written, or the concerto whose piano reduction needs to be completed, or the inevitable advertising and other business-related activities that need addressing.
    And then of course, there’s being a husband, father and being available for other social functions as well.

    So – the reality is that there are “scores” (meant in the quantitative context) of pieces sitting around that I would love to fix, but the probability is that they will simply have to remain as they are, and hopefully still be attractive as is.

    Another reality is that one orchestra will play differently from another. So dynamics and other balance issues you “fix” based on the reading in a premiere might not be applicable in a different environment.

    I may have more thoughts – but I need to get back to composing!!

    Thanks for this discussion.

    Jim Stephenson
    http://www.stephensonmusic.com

    Reply
  2. mclaren

    The concept that a musical composition can be, or even should be, “finished,” presupposes a number of fascinating preconceptions which speak to the sharp schism twixt previous eras of music and the 21st century.

    Consider, for example, a musical composition consisting of melodic and/or harmonic and timbral materials combined with various algorithms. To what extent does changing the materials without changing the algorithms constitute “revision”?

    Or consider a “score” consisting of a directed garph for moving through complex polytempo MIDI files. To what extent does substituting a new set of polytempo materials in the MIDI file consist of “revising” the material?

    Or once again, consider a radical collaborative piece in which more than one composer contributes component melodic/rhythmic/timbral/harmonic/organizational materials. To what extent does cyclic revision by each composer consist of a “revision”?

    In the 21st century, is it not possible that musical compositions may now consist of multiple versions, with no specific version “the original” and no version “a revision”? As just one example, suppose a composer starts out with a piece of music carefully written out, then subjects each melodic line to a drastic tempo change represented by a graph over time. Is the final tempo-mutated version the original? Or a revision? Or suppose a composer originally creates a piece of music in (say) 19 equal tones per octave, and then recasts the same melodic and harmonic and rhythmic materials in the nearest equivalent pitches in (say) 15 equal tones per octave — is the 15-equal version a revision? Or the original?

    Reply

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