The Piece I Didn’t Write

The first piece that I ever penned for other people to perform was at the behest of my high school’s music teacher, for our orchestra. Since I went to a small school, this was a very unusual ensemble that featured a single bassist and cellist, and limited winds including one person who functioned as the only bassoon and French horn player. At the performance I also made my conducting debut on this funereal march, trying desperately to let the percussionist set the tempo while he was equally avid in his will to follow me. Obviously, this was an important learning experience for me. This concert featured another student premiere, a virtuosic blues-based blast of a piece. Afterwards, I kept thinking about this other work and how I enjoyed hearing it more than my own.

Although I was unaware of this at the time, this very first concert of mine established a pattern that continues to hold true to today. Once I finish any new piece, I find myself envying any other work that I hear for that ensemble. In my mind, all the other compositions sound better, fresher, and more interesting. When I compose quiet and meditative music, the other pieces on the same program that move quickly at great volume invariably excite me the most. When my music focuses on rhythmic drive, I’m drawn to the creations that explore sonic spaces, and at the concerts where I’ve contributed experimental soundscapes I tend to enjoy the simple melodies the most. The composition that hits the spot for me is always the piece I didn’t write.

Throughout my student years, I tried to solve this conundrum by pouring every possibility into each container. I would throw every interesting texture that I could ideate into any single piece, utilizing overwhelming force as the tool that would prove my compositional acumen. The resulting works often felt disjointed as they moved between textures, never remaining anywhere long enough in order to fully explore their territory. And at the concerts, I wished that I had composed those works that confidently remained in a single sound world.

I continue to love music that is both purposeful and uncompromising, and recently I’ve been creating new pieces that attempt to convey this aesthetic. I’ll write a series of works that focus on a singular emotional space, and as I complete each piece I’ll realize that my gravitational center is being pulled more and more in a new direction. When this pull becomes strong enough, I’ll move into a new period that focuses on those musical affects that I missed during the prior compositions. In this manner, I followed my series of pieces that were all about rhythmic propulsion with a number of new pieces in a new notational system that allowed for no metrical regularity whatsoever. Now, I realize that I’m nearing the end of this latter phase and I am gearing up for a series of pieces that follow in yet another different direction.

Two weeks ago, I finished a new work for solo piano. Since I had recently completed a series of compositions exploring microtonality and a variety of unusual extended techniques, I decided to challenge myself by limiting this piece to the sounds created by depressing the keys themselves. My planning eventually led to a deceptively simple and melodic piece with gently and slowly pulsing chords, and no dynamic marking louder than pianissimo. While I was composing, I was happily focused on this sonic space and I never missed the other possible paths that I could have followed. However, I found that the moment that I had completed work I began to long for brief loud pianistic outbursts. And I can already predict that at the premiere concert I’ll hear a work of great rhythmic virtuosity and drive, and that I’ll sigh inwardly, jealous of the piece I didn’t write.

2 thoughts on “The Piece I Didn’t Write

  1. Philip de Oliveira

    Thank you for this, David!

    But of course, as soon as something like this is said, young composers are tempted to not be critical of pieces which are, in fact, pretty lousy.

    Reply

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