Art & Fear: 5

More thoughts on the idea that each choice you make , each brushtroke, each sentence, each musical phrase , limits your final product.

Of course it’s true in the simplest sense. If I start with a big slap of red paint in the middle of the paper, I know that I’m never getting rid of it. Red just doesn’t go away. If I start with a musical idea, that idea already has determined whether I can write a sonata or a fugue.

(When Shostakovich was a student, he was assigned a fugue statement as an exercise. He worked all night on the counterpoint but could only cobble together something he knew was “wrong” in the academic sense. When he turned it in the next day, he discovered why he had had problems: he had copied the phrase incorrectly, with one note wrong. Such is the rigor of the fugue.)

However, I have found that when I’m working on my music, these “wrong turns” don’t often happen. I’m such a formalist that I generally have a roadmap to guide me, and even though I may find the going tough, I have a picture in my head of what the piece should be when I’m done.

In fact, that’s my main working method on larger pieces: listen to the playback obsessively and check for what’s “missing.” It may be the accompaniment to the melody is wrong, or the shift from one motive to another is clumsy, or sometimes it just needs more cowbell.

It is a comfort to me that this is how Beethoven worked. Mozart may have written his symphonies down straight out of his head, but Beethoven erased and scratched out more than he published. He rewrote the opening of his Fifth eight times before he got it “right.” So that’s why it doesn’t bother me to have a music piece that won’t yield up its secrets. I know that I just have to keep working.

It occurs to me too that composing is very different in that regard from painting. My painting so far is littered with abandoned works, stuff that I just can’t see a way forward on. My music, not so much. Only the Symphony in G, and nothing prevents me from picking it up again and jerking it into shape.

2 thoughts on “Art & Fear: 5

  1. What if you substituted the word “limits” with “opens”?
    More during art camp. Gather your nearly-filled sketchbooks and all your paintings of the last year and bring it all with you.

  2. Sergei Taneyev, arguably the greatest counterpoint theoretician ever despite being not very well known in the west, also did a lot of revising, although it sounds like his approach was organized differently. He reportedly worked out preparatory sketch after sketch after sketch of different aspects of the piece, figuring out what worked and went well together and what didn’t. What he considered the actual, final “composition” stage involved putting the various workable pieces together into a coherent whole.

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