When school ended I had been asked for new pieces by three people, and I have now finished two and a half of them. This morning I put the final touches on a piece for viola and piano, Scene from a Marriage, for my Bard colleague, violist Marka Gustavsson. I also completed, this afternoon, a tentative first draft for a 25-minute string quartet in one movement, titled The Summer Land of Time, for a concert Carson Cooman is organizing at Harvard. And yesterday I reached the halfway point in a new piano piece. It’s 38 minutes of music since the last week of May, which amazes me because when I was young I was such a damnably slow composer.
What I’m also surprised by is that I have virtually been writing these three pieces at the same time. This has never happened to me before. I have sometimes worked on two pieces at once, but inevitably one piece always became the “main” piece, and the other I ended up calling my “trash can” piece, because I would throw into it all the material that didn’t work for the main piece. (It has always seemed to me that, while you’re composing within certain limitations, all the things you’re not doing start crowding your brain for attention, and by having a “trash can piece” you have a place to temporarily stow all the things you’re not achieving in this piece. For instance, you’re writing an adagio, and all these wonderful fast ideas come up that you feel guilty for not writing. My “trash can pieces” usually never make it past the early sketch phase. I wonder if other composers think this way.) Anyway, I was absolutely convinced that working on two pieces at once and giving each your full attention was impossible. But I seem to have done it now, carrying three pieces continuously in my head. I’ve long been convinced that, sometime in a composer’s early 20s, his or her process changes. You start out being inspired by sonic ideas that appear almost unbidden in your imagination, and without which you are unable to write. At some point you shift gears so that the initial inspiration is no longer sonic but formal, and you learn to compose without being inspired at first, and the inspiration will surge in once you’re working well. I can sit down now and compose at a moment’s notice in a way I never could at 25. And now I’m wondering if my compositional process is going through another shift, allowing me to compose in multiple streams at once. Any composer old enough to have been through this is welcome to describe to me what I have to look forward to.
Allow me to also note that 25 minutes nonstop is a long slab of music to keep in your head at once. My previous longest single movement was the second movement of Sunken City, which was 18 minutes. I don’t see how Feldman did it, or even Mahler.