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  • Edgar Girtain

The Idea's Slow Reveal

I often think about the relationship between the composer and the idea, which I imagine as something more or less external from the composer. Composing, in its broadest sense, is simply the process of "working out" musical ideas. And while, due to the limited amount of pitches and rhythms conventionally available to the composer, the initial generation of those ideas is fairly straightforward creative act, how those ideas take shape in the larger work--that is, their projection into the void of musical space on dimensions other than the initial flat plane where they are first conceived--is a fascinating point of infinite digression in the composition process. Thus, mastering the art composition to me is metaphysics; it is a matter of learning what one does, or what one can do, when one's ideas are brought forth to confront the void.


The individual techniques composers use to construct their scaffolds into the void, and what those scaffolds might be, is a fertile field of discussion beyond my argument here. But the idea! The idea has a certain independence from the scaffolding process. And how the idea exists between its first conception and its subsequent projection out into the work, or more specifically, how much time the composer spends with his ideas before he works them out in full detail, has been a subject of intense interest for me. I suspect that this incubation period, which by definition precedes the bulk of the "heavy" composing activity, is highly consequential to quality of the subsequent work, and in addition, strongly influenced by the composer's circumstantial ability to meditatively reflect.


Meditative reflection, in its many forms, is a crucial part of the composition process because a musical idea always conceals far more than its surface appearance implies. Even the simplest idea is a prism that intricately weaves together layers of context and implication. Thus, far from a purely discrete unit, the simple idea is a nexus and a culmination of many ideas. And it is this cumulative, inter-connective quality that powers an idea's generative drive. In other words, its innate unevenness helps it stumble out into the void. But its aforementioned qualities are not always immediately apparent. To see what's underneath the surface, the idea must be given time to mature. The idea reveals its inner qualities in slow but endless, intermittent, stages.


For better or worse, composers frequently work under conditions which incentivize a composition process that facilitates the fluid and rapid creation, and subsequent revision, of their musical ideas. Pieces are usually written to meet some kind of deadline, and deadlines correspond to tangible rewards or consequences that in turn influence the composition process: payment received or not, a fruitful or awkward (but usually expensive) private lesson, the opportunity or not to work with world-class musicians. A composer must write a certain quantity of music. But I suspect that the pacing of the production of that quantity is critical to the quality of the final product. A rushed composer will spend less time with his ideas than perhaps he should.


When a composer lacks time, he may try to compensate with technique. Technique facilitates a "top-down" approach to composition can be leveraged to various ends; it may be used as a pedagogical tool to gain insight into historical or cross-cultural practice, or more typically, it can be used to speed up the composition process, usually thereby increasing the composer's total output. In previous centuries the domain of technique was amazingly efficient; propped up by rigid musical styles and a tradition of improvising composer-performers, it helped produce the mountains of scores the old masters left to posterity (some more successfully than others). Today the domain of compositional technique has mostly been dissected, segmented, and supplanted by the sub-fields of music theory, musicology, etc. And perhaps for the better. But both now and then, technique has always been the means to an end. It is divorced from idea; a golem. It can show us the inversions, rondo forms, topi, and set classes. But these are just archetypes of journeys into the void. They are nothing more than exterior elements which obfuscate the idea's inner life (or lack thereof). Technique can almost never replace or create the idea, and furthermore, has the potential to be disastrously misapplied, warping a perfectly good idea beyond what it naturally wants to, or should, do. (It's for these reasons among others it is often said that composition "can't be taught", although I disagree; it's the way we teach that doesn't work. Composition might be best taught via apprenticeship).


In the year 2020, the current of our world moves with relentless rapidity. A condition of our age is that we not only lack time, but our thoughts and attention are also being constantly commandeered by external entities in sophisticated ways and in increasingly fragmented increments. Participation in our society implies agreement to this condition; the 6-second video ad, the bus-window billboard, the passing siren, the vibrating cell phone "zzzz" are just a few examples. They're almost inescapable. "Do not reflect," they say. "Your time belongs to us," they insist. The pace of modernity pressures us to accept ideas at face value, and move on quickly. So where to find the idea's slow reveal?

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