Sunday, March 6, 2011

Stravinsky's Wisdom

There are some quotes that return again and again like a perfectly appropriate refrain for many different experiences.  I have mentioned before the value I find in Stravinsky's words, "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self."  The key, of course, is determining where those constraints come from.  External controls are a bit more difficult to embrace as desirable, but deciding for oneself where to create boundaries for a project helps define, focus, and inspire.

Q&A with August Bradley
My Dark Little Room by August Bradley
What I am finding with my current project, however, is that I sometimes fail to distinguish between what I want to create and what I must create.  I wind up thinking things like, If I compose a piece for an ensemble of this size, it will be a challenge to ever get it performed... I should go with something smaller.  That isn't really all that inspiring a decision, to be honest.  It's much more inspiring to consider what the perfect set of instruments would be for a particular piece.  It might be a full orchestra, or it might be just a quartet or trio.  That kind of constraint, being very specific about what is desirable, is what most easily opens the door to freedom.  It requires focusing on what I want rather than misconceptions about what must be done.

While that may not seem like a constraint, it does eliminate possibilities.  Once I consider that the perfect ensemble for a piece is a woodwind trio, I have no reason to consider how a violin or trombone could add to the sound.  I am free to focus on the instruments I have chosen as most desirable options, and I can go on to make further constraints about the piece based on the music and what I see as its ideal incarnation.  It becomes a matter of composing passionately rather than composing "correctly".


My own thoughts get in the way sometimes, though.  I can't start off this quietly and slowly; a piece has to grab the audience right off the bat.   Nevermind that thousands of very effective pieces start quietly and slowly, including a couple I've composed.  I can't repeat that entire section of the music; that's lazy and uninteresting.  Nevermind that repetition is an incredibly important and commonly used element of musical form that can have a musical purpose.  I have to add more complexity to this music; no one wants to listen to a piece that's too simple.  Nevermind that there have been musicians in every age who gained fame from simple pieces because so many people listen to them, or that some of the most memorable and well-loved works of music are just simple, well-written pieces that communicate something of value with compelling aestheticism.   Why in the world would I want to set up such frustrating constraints when the music itself suggests a different direction?  That doesn't create freedom.

So, as I conceive this piece, I am conscious of the kinds of constraints I am using.  I want nothing to do with the voice that claims to know how things must be, especially if those ideas lead me away from the direction of inspiration.  I want to create constraints that are based on my vision for the piece.  Freedom emerges when I am willing to set aside all of the conceptions about how the music must be and define its boundaries by what I want the piece to be.  It may take on its own twists and directions as I compose, but I will be more aware of them and better able to let the music "breathe" within well-defined boundaries.  If only the rest of life were as simple as setting aside the beliefs about what must be and focusing on what is possible.  If only. 

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