On the notepad I use to jot down ideas for upcoming NewMusicBox posts, there has been one important but perhaps less-than-riveting subject I have passed up for almost a year now: the difference between rewrites and edits, and the incredible usefulness of making both a part of one’s revising/honing process. It’s a minor point but one that has helped me a great deal and that is often glossed over.
It’s certainly possible to work without making any distinction between rewrites and edits, with draft material, corrections, and new sections written in the same “hand”, as it were. For those who have never seen Beethoven’s sketchbooks, I recommend them for the cross-outs alone—it’s a fascinating example of a mind always intent on relating possible ideas and variations to the entire composition, a kind of continuous development and revision of individual sections. But in today’s age of scanners, copiers, and computer files, it’s become easier than ever to manage multiple, dated versions of sketches; what are some of the possible advantages of working with multiple drafts instead of just the spot-correction approach?
It makes it possible to revert to an earlier draft. Working with specific, multiple drafts makes it easier to trace the lineage of developing ideas, and the practice also makes it possible to roll back the clock to a previous point in the compositional process. (How many compositional tweaks end up in the realization that our original idea was in fact the best?) When we have “one long manuscript” with edits and section rewrites all jumbled up with the original draft, it’s more difficult to get back in touch with one’s original intentions.
Edits and rewrites serve different functions. Cosmetic tweaks and measure inserts are more of a polishing of what already is than a reimagining of what could be (unless one is applying those tweaks globally to create an entirely new surface texture or something like that). While it is very useful to critique what one has made in a more literal sense (editing/spot correction), sometimes one’s critique needs to be expressed as something separate and new, something that may retain many features of the original draft but is otherwise free to diverge. This “going back to the drawing board” keeps us in touch with what is integral and worth preserving.
Multiple drafts allow us to explore “multiple universes” of musical thinking. Working with edits alone leads to a more linear process, whereas with multiple (perhaps simultaneously-composed) drafts this single-minded linearity is replaced with multiple realizations that relate to a central hub. Now one’s efforts can be felt in the context of a deepening or enriching of possibility rather than just one long slog toward the goalpost of the eventual “right” version. Multiple drafts allow me to explore a wider range of directions for a piece, and some of the discarded paths end up leading into new pieces. Even the savviest edit can’t accomplish that.
Lately I’ve kept multiple drafts of all my pieces, which are independently edited until the final version is chosen/assembled. By allowing me to explore several directions at once, I feel like I am able to truly appreciate the possibilities in my material. It may not be the right approach for everyone, but it is worth a try. Sometimes I’m astounded by how a minor, nerdy idea such as the above can have a huge impact on our musical thinking!