In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sorry for being remiss lately in my role as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of classical music – it’s been more than a week since I’ve said anything my followers need distance themselves from – but I’ve been preoccupied with something peculiar. One of the things that has surprised me most in the last seven years is what a nurturing presence my early music has for me. I seem to go through a pattern. Of course, like most composers, I am dazzled by the brilliance of anything I’ve written in the last six months. Then after a piece becomes a year or two old, I begin to devalue it, and become more aware of what it doesn’t achieve than what it does. It starts to dissatisfy, embarrass me. Some pieces much more than others, of course.
But I’m finding that pieces twenty years old or more suddenly become quite fascinating. Many pieces from the early 1980s that I had left off my official “works” list are quietly reappearing. It’s not that they’re great pieces, nor that I want them waved in the public eye again. I don’t even want to mention examples, for fear you’ll inquire or go listen to them, and be justly unimpressed. But many of them express, amid their faults, one perfect idea that I had forgotten about, some trick that I had worked up just for that piece and never used again, which today feels like it was written by someone else. In recent years I’ve based new works on pieces I wrote in grad school. In stealing those tricks back again, I feel like I’m plagiarizing another composer – but of course, the composer is the 25-year-old Kyle Gann, who wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, but was shrewder than he seemed, or than I had been giving him credit for. I keep responding creatively to that pathetic young composer as though he were a major influence on me. I own those ideas – and had forgotten they were mine. And, genius or not, they come back to me with a “certain alienated majesty.”
And so for periods in the last several years I’ve found myself – whether for eventual presentation or merely as therapy, I can’t tell – spending alarming amounts of time renotating, revising, rearranging pieces that I wrote before I went off to seek my fortune at the Village Voice. Some of the electronic ones are embedded in software that no longer opens in Mac OSX, and I’ve gone through a few panic attacks lately that I might not be able to completely reconstruct them. I’ll report on some of the results soon. It seems masturbatory, and I avoid admitting to people that that’s what I’m spending my time doing (except to you guys, of course, because I count on your discretion), but seeing these formal and rhythmic and harmonic ideas I started out with helps me correct my trajectory, and refind the reason I started out on this course in the first place. I speculate that perhaps composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass don’t have this experience, because their music has always built on its original principles more incrementally. I’m more like Nancarrow or Stockhausen or Terry Riley – once I’ve achieved an effect, like Thoreau refusing to make money on his improved pencil, I’m strangely, and perhaps self-defeatingly, reluctant to prove I can do it again.
And this is why I don’t give a damn what my students’ opinions of their works are, and tell them so. That trio that some junior is so disappointed with and contemptuous of, and doesn’t want to include on his recital – he may well look at it again in 2033 and recognize some spark of genius to which he had, in the meantime, become unfaithful. The trace of his youthful psyche he finds written there might someday change his whole life.