One of the things that makes me hopeful about humans is that despite our considerable foibles, we have a tendency to want to deal with difficult events and unresolved conflicts by reengaging them rather than avoiding them. In the short term we may choose to flee, but in the long run even this impulse is superseded by the desire for closure (for some), or for others perhaps just the savor of a good challenge. Many human phobias and compulsive behaviors seem to attest to our desire to not merely shut out painful memories but to instead relive them in a controlled context, or one in which we had proceeded differently.
As a composer, I often return to ideas first explored in previous compositions. And true to form, it is less because I think that said idea would make a good piece than because of the fact that I relish the chance to have another bout with an old sparring partner. (My relationships with my pieces are usually genial, but there are times when a more combative paradigm is welcome and appropriate). This is an emotional reaction and not a calculated one tuned to produce another successful piece, or to produce anything in particular; it is about wanting to spend my days working at a problem that satisfies and compels me.
There are times when I feel that a particular idea has been honestly “laid to rest” in a previous piece, albeit in that particular form. I’m always looking for new ideas that were incidental and relatively thin in one piece, such as might be spun into a composition of their own. But I’m also looking for the few ideas that have continued to yield possibilities and keep me interested despite ample exploration; these are the kind of challenges that sustain me and have enough nuance to support examination from several angles. Some of these threads eventually run out while other new threads are constantly forming anew. As composers, there might be a sense in which the specific challenges we choose to engage time and again are more defining than how we handle them.