I've been trying valiantly to work on a new piece the past few weeks, a shortish duo for Baroque guitar and theorbo, the first notes I've set to paper since finishing a biggish flute and harp piece in June. It's been tremendously difficult for some reason, not least my lack of familiarity with the instruments. I came up with a pretty chain of nine chords that oscillate ambiguously between A minor and B minor... and then proceeded to write some of the dullest music I've ever come up with. Every note has been a trial, and the whole process is getting slower and slower, which means that I've hit the wall with this particular line of inquiry.
One of my old teachers (and what is the study of composition but a years-long accumulation of choice quotes from teachers past?) once told me in an e-mail that mental resistance was a sign that you've taken a wrong turn. I've been banging my head against the wall with this one, hacking out what started as pretty patterns of even, running sixteenth-notes within my chords. The intent was to create a sort of pulsing, minimalist chaconne of seven variations, with an intro and extro of slightly different music.
But it's not working. The rhythmic structure isn't holding together, the patterns aren't that interesting, and the textural difference between the variations just isn't great enough. Sometimes it takes weeks just to get to the point where you admit that an idea isn't viable, or that you just can't get your head around it at the moment, for whatever reason. Maybe you're pressed for time, or the concept isn't as clear as it seemed when you started, or wasn't as developed as it should have been. I have a tendency to overcomplicate things at first, which may have happened here. I also thought I should write something rhythmic for a change, but perhaps the piece wants to be yet another slow, meditative one. Whatever the case, I now need to start over with something simpler and more direct. The chords will probably remain, as they're the one spontaneous element that I feel has real potential. They arose in a moment of improvisation at the keyboard, when I was getting used to the tuning of the instruments, and I have a sense that those chords are the piece, just not in the way that I thought.
My next attempt will be a series of boxes, with the two parts in independent rhythms, floating figures creating a more ambient soundworld. I'd planned on amplifying the players and experimenting with some live reverb and delay, and the technological aspect may take on a greater role. I'm definitely a stranger in a strange land here: unfamiliar instruments, unfamiliar processes, a much simpler harmonic language than anything I've used in the past. The whole experience feels very foreign, far from my usual mode of working, which is actually quite apt. I'm calling the piece The wine-dark sea, after fond memories of my honeymoon trip to Crete last year (see here for the precise moment of inspiration, if that sort of thing holds any appeal). At the time, I wrote about being surprised that the landscape there didn't resonate in a musical way for me. Still, I felt I needed to address some aspect of the experience, and I latched onto the sea as a catalyst, especially its ever-changing shades and densities of blue, which these chords, shifting slowly and gently from one to the next, seemed to evoke. However, what started as a tensely rhythmic piece may become a blissed-out dream recollection of a wonderful trip.
It's also a possibility that I'll return to the original idea and discover that I was right all along, but I doubt it. I went for a walk to clear my head, and thinking the matter through, I realized that my mind had given up on the idea a long time ago, and I've been flogging a dead horse. Despite being more or less back at square one, and with a deadline looming in a few weeks, that decision is a powerful one in the act of composition, a gut-level recognition that tears you away from a mistaken concept and gets you closer to the truth of the material, and thus the piece. There's a sense of liberation in walking away from an idea that, if I just pushed it to its conclusion, would do the job but nothing more, in order to find something special, different, memorable. Within reason, the goal of art should be never to settle for anything less.