Blog: On Revising Music

1/19/11 - On Revising Music

If you did not sleep through your music history classes or if you have read biographies of composers like Hector Berlioz, Anton Bruckner, or Jean Sibelius, you may know that these composers frequently burned their scores if they proved to be unsatisfactory. In his memoirs Berlioz mentions burning many scores in his youth, and there are rumors that Sibelius burned the completed manuscript to his Eighth Symphony. This idea of burning music always seemed a bit extreme to me; even in my earliest frustrating attempts at composition I would always just throw away the paper rather than lighting them on fire. Since most music today is engraved using digital platforms, I suppose the closest thing we get to the burning phenomenon is clicking "Secure Empty Trash" and then confirming that is indeed what you want to do. If you are really hardcore, perhaps something like this scene from The Core would make sure that your music is truly gone for good. So why did these composers think burning their work was the only solution? Was there really no way around it? Were the notes so heinous and offensive to human ears that it would result in a catastrophic unbalancing of the universe if they were allowed to remain on a page locked in a trunk?

I bring you now to the point of this post - revising. In addition to burning his work, Bruckner was a notorious reviser, creating numerous copies of his works with small changes that wreak havoc on musicologists and editors/publishers. Perhaps stemming from a deep-rooted insecurity about the quality of his work, it seems Bruckner - who is not alone in this practice - spent considerable energy in revising his works* rather than creating new ones. My friend Tom Dempster recently wrote a nice blog post about his goals for 2011, and he hopes to have time to revise older works. While Tom does list new works as first priority and I do not know the exact state of these older works, I can say for myself that I would much rather be creating something new than trying to patch up an older work. This is not a critique of Tom's process or any other composers who frequently revise, but it is contrary to my basic process of creating music.

My revising stage comes in two steps with a potential third added in. The first is real-time revision, where I may delete measures, whole pages, multiple pages, or entire works and start over from scratch. Usually if I get stuck on a passage and cannot work a way out, I will go back to the last part that really clicked for me, delete music from that point forward and begin rewriting. The second revision stage comes after the entire work is done and entered into the computer. The most common problems occur when a tempo is slightly too fast or slow compared to what I was hearing while writing, and transitions that don't work well. The third revision stage comes after rehearsing and hearing a live performance of the piece. This doesn't always happen, but there have been times when a player will bring up an issue that can be fixed with a rewrite rather than my original intentions.

Maybe this lack of revisions makes me a bad composer, or at least someone who will never make it big. I have older works that are not necessarily representative of what I am doing now - like this one - but I have no shame in putting them up for anyone who might want them some day. I do not share the view of a composer like Maurice Ravel, who destroyed most of his sketches to present his work in an ideal light. My revisions tend to come in the form of improving what was not successful in the previous piece and applying that to future works. Compare the horn sonata linked above to my recent concerto and you will hopefully see an improvement in form, style, rhythm, harmonic language, and musicality. Tom closes his blog with the realization that not all of his musical children will be perfect and, for me, that is acceptable.

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* - I am not a big fan of Bruckner, so perhaps this was for the best.