Sins of My Youth Revisited

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.

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  1. says

    I guess Emerson’s point is that part of greatness consists of seeing and realizing potential where others see a dead end, and so great work is often the sole manifestation of ideas that many people had and discarded. The solution to this problem is to be willing to fail spectacularly in order to make sure that an idea that seems bad will in fact not work, because sometimes the idea will work after all and therein lies the path to greatness.
    Thomas Edison: “After we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way.”
    Of course you’ve actually turned the Emerson quote on its head to say instead of seeing your own ideas in other people’s great works that you see great ideas in your own failures. I suppose the lesson is that sometimes you fail because the idea was bad, and sometimes you fail because you lack the technique to make it work. Revisiting failures seems like a good way to figure out which ideas merely seemed bad due to lack of ability at the time.
    But one question: If you tell you students that you don’t care about their own assessments of their work, how do you train them to be their own best critic? It seems to me like you’d want to help them learn to identify within a piece that doesn’t work the ideas that might prove fruitful later on, and that requires the ability to perform assessments. Am I missing your point?
    KG replies: My, what a complex question for a Monday morning – complex, I guess, because “train them to be their own best critic” isn’t a phrase in my lexicon. I’m not sure I’m my own best critic, which is sort of the point. What I say instead with students is, “learn to hear from the audience’s viewpoint.” I’m mainly concerned with whether the idea of the piece comes across, whether the idea is clearly drawn, whether the student is letting wishful thinking fool him into imagining that his initial inspiration is being heard when it’s actually buried in a mass of complications. I guess that could be being your own best critic, if you accept Virgil Thomson’s admirable idea that likes and dislikes ought to have little place in criticism. It isn’t that I don’t want a student (or myself) to recognize the flaws in a piece – but for most of my students, as for myself when I was young, it’s a *too*-harsh self-critical sense that keeps them from appreciating the pieces they’re working on. There are different kinds of composers, and some this might be dangerous advice. But generally I urge the student to turn off his critical faculty, finish the piece as directly and honestly as possible, then listen to it and see if anything can be changed to improve its clarity of expression, and after that suspend judgment – that what the piece means is more important than whether people like it or not.
    I wonder what being one’s own best critic would actually mean. The best reviews I’ve ever gotten were for the CD of Long Night, a piece I wrote when I was 24, and I’m still shaking my head over the fact.
    As for the Emerson, I didn’t really mean to buy into or subvert his construct, I just love the phrase “a certain alienated majesty” and wanted people to know where I was quoting it from. The pieces I was revisiting *weren’t* failures – they just didn’t seem hip enough at the time, or were realized in poor technology, or got badly played, or were well-written but unflatteringly unambitious. I remember a story pianist Richard Bunger told about one of Cage’s prepared piano pieces that got a bad performance, and Cage decided it was an awful piece and he never wanted to have it performed again, and then Bunger did a beautiful job with it, and convinced him it was actually quite good. I think I’m more saying that it can take a long passage of time before you can really look at your music objectively. And perhaps that no one can get such a profound, revealing look at his own soul as an old artist poring over his youthful work.

  2. says

    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 . .
    Kyle, your statement reminded me of a character from Georges Perec’s great novel “Life: A User’s Manual”. This character spends the first half of his adult life traveling the world, stopping at each place to paint a watercolour of what he sees there. He has each painting mounted on board and shipped home to Paris, and then, when he returns, he takes to them all with a jig-saw, cutting them all into many small pieces. He puts all the pieces from all the paintings into one large container, and then spends the second half of his life trying to reconstruct the original paintings from all the jigsaw pieces.
    Such is our life!

  3. says

    This is a really lovely posting, Kyle, and it resonates with me because I also sometimes travel back in my musical time capsule to recycle material, often from when I was a student. Nearly always, the earlier pieces from my conservatory days were ultimately incomplete gestures as a whole, but they contain snippets and sections that, from the perch perspective of a few passing decades, possess truth and value. Like you, I tell younger composers to hang on to their first pieces, no matter how disappointing they may be at the moment. Because this is where the spark of their musical soul will be hiding many years from now.
    This is one of those subjects happily illuminated by the passing of time. Reaching the wonderful moment where I am now closer to 50 than to 40, I have a vantage point on music written in my twenties and early thirties that I could not have had when I composed them. Along with our hearts, minds, and wrinkling skin, our ears mature with the seasons. Best of all, the process of carbon-dated auto-plagiarism rewards us with self discovery. I wrote a little essay about this a while back, which included these thoughts:
    “[upon rummaging through earlier works] …like a little dung beetle, I happily rolled my music and myself back down the hallway to the studio, where I began the process of dissecting the remains of notes long ago disposed of, and turning them into a new piece… I came across a little four-note motif in this musical compost that I had unknowingly used in yet another chamber work only a few years ago, having never before referred to this papyral artifact. It was a jolt to realize just how consistent I was in my taste and note choices over time… It has been said by more than a few people that composers spend their entire careers writing and re-writing the same thematic ideas, haunted by certain intervals and rhythms in their search for musical expression. Without question, it is this very neurosis that makes a composer’s voice unique and why we sound like ourselves.”
    KG replies: Hey, I didn’t notice any wrinkling skin. Wait till you’re in your 50s, then you’ll *really* have a perspective.

  4. says

    Isn’t going back and revising older works a classic trait of the “Old Master” in Galenson’s works that you have mentioned in the past? I don’t think you should feel any qualms about returning to your earlier work.
    Regarding the issue with the old software, if you are feeling adventurous you could try to emulate an earlier version of the Mac OS. I haven’t tried it yet, and it might be more work than it’s worth, but if you are faced with losing a composition, it might be worth it.
    KG replies: I had forgotten that about the Galenson book. Thanks. So I’m an old master.