Next month So Percussion is playing my Snake Dance No. 2 at Bard. They wanted the keyboard sampler part that I used to play when I joined in to perform the piece. I hadn’t seen the thing in years, and in fact it was not notated in full detail, because whenever I played in my own pieces I tended to improvise somewhat (like Mozart and Beethoven). So that meant I had to go through the randomly-organized manuscripts in my music cabinet to find and upgrade the sheets of paper they needed.
Going through my manuscripts is always a heavy psychological trip, a confrontation with the subconscious state of my youth. My paper files of scores, sketches, and various versions basically run up to 2000, after which most of the materials are on my computer. I ran across the repetitive little piano piece titled “Go Walking with Me,” in 8/8 meter with a curious key signature of simply an A-flat on the bass staff, that I wrote at age six. I found, once again, the brief, one-movement, tonal but pointlessly dissonant piano sonatas I wrote in high school, with their evident influences of Copland, Bernstein, Schuman, Ruggles, and Ives. But this time around I also found a completed, seven-and-a-half-minute piece for voice and percussion ensemble that I have no memory of composing, dated 1987; and also a three-minute, finished piano piece from 1993 whose score just barely rings a bell. They are in my handwriting, with the same silly rhythmic reflexes I’ve always composed with, on my usual 40-stave manuscript paper flanked by sketches for pieces in my acknowledged output, and the vocal piece’s text is one of my favorite passages from Thoreau’s journals, so there’s no doubt that I wrote them – but how did I completely forget having done so?
The low point in my composing life, in terms of both quality and quantity, was around 1986-1990, when I was in my early 30s. In general I wrote better pieces, and made more astute musical decisions, in the early ’80s and even late ’70s, than I did during that post-graduate period. It was during my early years as music critic for the Village Voice, and the pressure of my suddenly heightened visibility was an intense distraction. I had also been introduced to microtonality by Ben Johnston, and I spent years filling notebooks with fractions and logarithms, trying to learn how to be musically intuitive in the post-12tet world. But none of that fully explains the weird detour I took. Before 1985 I was heavily into Harold Budd and Brian Eno, and exploring the avenues that minimalism had opened up. To this day, I know people who think my best piece is Long Night, from 1981. But for a few years, starting with I’itoi Variations (1985), I got back into dissonance and pitch complexity, using algorithms and tone rows (never 12-tone rows, but shorter or longer than that), and my music went through an ambitious, bombastic phase whose motivation is still a mystery to me. I was in search of some compositional system, and hadn’t yet learned that systemic thinking isn’t part of my personality. By 1992, microtonality was beginning to feel comfortable, and with the early movements of The Planets in 1994, I put all that grating spikiness behind me, returned to my minimalist roots, and I have never been tempted back. I’m sure that getting into therapy had a lot to do with my recovery. I highly recommend it.
I keep track of my composition students after they graduate, and it does usually seem that their momentum grinds to a halt in the first years after college. (I finished my doctorate in 1983.) Their lives become unstable, they work with this group of musicians and then that, they form an ensemble that doesn’t last, they have performance disasters, they get a brief chance to provide music for theater or dance, they take exhausting day jobs, and the clear trajectory they had as students wobbles badly. They lurch from one project and one style and one composing paradigm to another, with no clear continuity. Some of them leave music, while the others eventually gather themselves together and start up again in some new aesthetic place once their lives stabilize. Their experience, combined with my own, makes it seem patently absurd to me that the classical music world goes around looking for hotshot 23-year-old musical geniuses, assuming that compositional talent will always manifest in brash but competent works written in one’s twenties. The young composers I know fall apart in those years, as I did, and when their music finally begins to flower at age 35 or 40 , they are no longer considered “young composers,” and thus attractive for orchestral-commission careers. The entire profession seems based on clichéd misconceptions from history books, and an unwarranted assumption of a smooth evolutionary trajectory.
In any case, the forgotten pieces I found seemed worth saving. Both needed revision. The piano piece was too frantically virtuosic for the simplicity of expression it aimed for. The vocal/percussion piece was pretty and well-conceived but too austere, the vocal lines too slow and drawn out, the text too fragmentary, and it was a quick job to speed up the vocal lines and insert more of Thoreau’s text in the resulting gaps. Titled The Stream (Admonitions), I’m now delighted with it, and hope to hear it someday. The piano piece I called Untitled Phase Study. Perhaps revising abandoned works from more than two decades ago isn’t the best use of my time, but a weekend’s retouching did allow me to add two pieces to my worklist. And it must be one of the strangest features of a creative artist’s life that the history of your subconscious is stacked away in a cabinet somewhere, available to be pored over like a doctor examining a patient who is actually himself.
UPDATE: I should add that my lowered tolerance threshold toward my own minor and abandoned works is probably conditioned by the little-known Beethoven pieces I’ve been researching for next semester’s Beethoven class. I listened to twelve of his contredanses, some canons, and a couple early sets of variations this week, and so I’m thinking, what the hell, as long as you write an Appassionata and an Eroica, people are glad to listen whatever trivial tidbits you penned to kill time or make money.