Revise THIS!

revisionsWhile revising a composition for large ensemble, I’ve been contemplating this question: Why is revising often so much more difficult than just creating a brand new work that resolves the same problems? This revision is killing me, causing me to expend much more time and effort than if I had simply composed something wholly original for the same ensemble.

I decided to pose this question to composers on Facebook and received some interesting responses, each of which sheds light on a different aspect of what makes revising such a slog. Stacy Garrop comments, “Once you pull one string, it all starts to unravel…”—and it is quite true that each new revision creates its own set of problems. Perhaps this is just an extreme form of the old adage that beginnings are easy, but that they create consequences down the line that make crafting a satisfying middle and ending quite the challenge. When revising, we’re often working around an even more restrictive set of decisions (all the things we want to keep) and making any change might have vast ramifications on the experience of the entire entity.

Keith Fitch points out that it would be great if composers had the luxury that playwrights do, “where every premiere is considered a dress rehearsal.” It’s a great observation that there’s something quite artificial about the idea that music should be turned in somehow just right on the first attempt, which might be one of the more insidious assumptions inherent in well-meaning “professionalism.” Workshop programs like those hosted by the American Composers Orchestra, choral groups like Volti, and chamber ensembles like ICE do much to encourage a more sensible approach in which experimentation and feedback are central to the creative process, rather than leading the composer to sometimes hedge his or her bets and settle for what is “safe”—the American Composers Orchestra even calls their laboratory program “Playing it UNsafe” in order to emphasize this very point.

Daron Hagen draws attention to the craft involved in pulling off any revision with panache: “The hardest and most thankless achievement, achieved almost exclusively through extensive revision, is the appearance of effortless inevitability. This is perceived by all but the most perceptive colleague, listener, or critic, as facility.” Extensive revision is a big part of the musical theatre culture that is Hagen’s wheelhouse, and I watched him revise three orchestral interludes that are part of his recent opera Amelia when (during a dress rehearsal) it was determined that there needed to be louder music during some set changes in order to blot out the racket! All composers should be as musically fit and prepared for these situations, but Hagen is right that revising works is much more a part of certain musical genres than others; composers working in concert music (where revising is more optional rather than the norm) could do well to emulate the steel nerves of composers who write for the theatre and lyric stage.

Finally, Kevin Puts provided perhaps the most telling analysis of just why revising can often feel so laborious and boring to a composer’s psyche: “I think it’s because you are not traveling into uncharted territory (which is exciting) as you were when you wrote it; it’s like going back to look for the watch you dropped somewhere. You don’t really want to be there.” Agreed, composers are always looking ahead to new projects and rare is the composer who truly relishes revision, which normally happens more on a need-to-do basis rather than in the spirit of waking up one morning, putting on a pot of coffee, rubbing one’s hands together, and gleefully exclaiming “Hot dog! Time to painstakingly retread through some hard-won accomplishments while taking care not to shit the bed and make the piece even worse!” Even for those who have the experience and temperament to derive some satisfaction from a well-executed revision, the process of revising definitely sets off different and perhaps less expansive emotions than brainstorming a new, heretofore unimagined composition.

What has your experience been with revising music? And how would you compare it to that of composing original material?

7 thoughts on “Revise THIS!

  1. Jay

    I think the most difficult part of revisions (for me) is that, as I’m deleting or erasing chunks of music, it feels like I’m erasing chunks of sentences. So when I go back to listen to the revision, it can sometimes feel like I’m reading fragmented sentences, and the effect is pretty off-putting. It’s similar to what Stacy said about the work unraveling.

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  2. Alexandra Gardner

    I think the reason for the revision can determine whether it is a total slog, or a more enjoyable task. Revisions entailing smallish changes that will make an already good work a lot more musically awesome can feel really satisfying, whereas changes that have to happen as a result of an issue such as, an instrumental part is too difficult, or there can’t be an electric guitar involved after all, for instance, are way more sloggy.

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  3. danvisconti

    Agreed, Alex — there’s that kind of revision that is about making the already-effective even more awesome, and then there is the kind of revison that is about trying to resuscitate the patient with paddles in a momnent of frenzied necessity–and elective surgery is always (by nature) more acceptable than that foisted upon us by necessity!

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  4. Kyle Gann

    For me, composing can be scary and frustrating at times, but post-performance revising is always a blast. Suddenly it’s so easy to see how the piece is supposed to go. I tell students I’m a mediocre composer but a great reviser. I do agree that there’s a ridiculous and unrealistic expectation in our music world that a piece should be perfect by the first performance.

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  5. Danvisconti

    Hi Kyle, yes I do really enjoy that kind of immediate post-premiere revising, which taps into my curiosity at the results of the sonic experiment. For me, it seems like the more distance between first hearing and revision, the more dreadful the whole process becomes–possibly because I’ve allowed too much time to elapse and am no longer capturing my initial, clear impulses to revise that were born of that first hearing.

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  6. Fahad

    For many writers, editing IS the composition process. Like the famous Hemingway story:

    Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
    Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
    Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
    Hemingway: Getting the words right.

    But I agree this mentality is lacking in for classical composers. There’s a lot that differentiates the expectations we have of composers. Singers take lessons their whole life, but composers are expected to go it alone after a while. Writer have publishers who tear their books apart and help them edit huge chunks of it along the way, often rearranging or discarding chapters, characters, plot lines, etc. When a publisher receives a piece from a composer, it’s considered inviolate. I’d love to see more composers develop a real editing/feedback process, it takes some of the pressure off them, kills the isolation many composers experience, and will likely lead to better work.
    To quote Hemingway again, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

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  7. Nick Vasallo

    This article recalls one of the tenets I learned as a young composer: “the most important utensil of the composer is the eraser.” Coined by Schoenberg I believe?

    What helps me revise is getting away from a work for a period. I do other things, I put as much energy as I did composing into something completely different. I go back to a work and try and view it through a different lens. It certainly helps. I do think, however, waiting too long is not a good thing. It’s akin to working out too little, a couple days away from lifting weights–no probelm, the muscles will heal. Too long away from the gym may take a period of getting back into the groove (so to speak), or in this case–the particular universe of the composition.

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