15 November 2010

Revision as Conformity

Earlier this month, I wrote briefly about an old tune of mine I was reworking on short notice. It was performed last night, and seemed to go over well. I wrote this composition when I was only 19, and the original version is typical of someone that age: there are strong ideas marred somewhat by some bizarre harmonies, a few of which I didn't know how to notate and had to invent chord symbols for. The revision process essentially consisted of "cleaning up" this mess, in other words, removing everything that isn't normative in a hard bop minor blues and converting a few wild chord symbols to more standard ones. I hate doing that to my tunes, whatever the style; there are enough hard bop tunes already, and those of us living today could never do it better than the style's originators anyway. It's one reason revision is not one of my strengths as a composer. As my music gets more "original," I find revision to be more palatable because I feel a greater sense of ownership over the ideas at play. But there are several early works of mine, like this one, that I've been loathe to revisit because they are clearer imitations of historical styles, and revising the non-normative elements out of them would mean depersonalizing them almost completely. Even if the result is more palatable to my current set of ears, I often sense that there was another solution which I simply was not up to finding at the time, and that I will not find now given how different I am. The stylistically normative solutions can revive a tune, but at this point, I've written better tunes in all of those styles anyway, and again, we really don't need too many more of them at this point (I don't, at least).

Of course, composers evolve with time, but those bizarre 19 year-old ideas are always with us. There was a bar or so of my arrangement for last night that I wasn't in love with, but simply couldn't see working any other way. I can recall countless instances of the same situation going back to my earliest compositional efforts, and they continue to this day. The difference is that nowadays, they often work way better than I think they will before hearing the piece played. I think it's that sense of logic that improves most of all over time in a composer, moreso even than their technique or their knowledge of other pieces. When it comes time to revise again in another 10 years, maybe I won't have to take those parts out.

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