Earlier this year, I started work on a woodwind quintet. I had been thinking about the piece for awhile, but it wasn't until a few months ago that I set aside time to actually put notes down on the page. For a few weeks, the writing was going well. We were busy with a move and getting settled in a new city, but I was able to work on the piece consistently enough that the ideas were cohesive. Since I had a clear impression of the musical ideas I was using, the composition flowed fairly easily. That is, until it didn't.
At one point, in early May, I hit an obstacle with the piece, and I didn't know what it was. I was simply dissatisfied with what I was creating. The piece was becoming complicated, unwieldy to perform, and overly demanding to the listener. I was not enthusiastic about working on the music, and I found myself making excuses or finding distractions to avoid the piece. I knew that I had somehow gone astray with the piece, but I wasn't sure what to do about it.
So, I worked on other things for awhile. I allowed myself to set the quintet on a back burner and started doing more with recording, focusing on a completely different kind of piece. After a few weeks of wrestling with computer issues, fine-tuning virtual drums, and learning more about vocal recording, I had a good start on a recording of an original song. Somewhere in the midst of that process, I also realized something about the quintet: I was trying to take the piece in a direction it didn't need (or want) to go.
Although it may be a strange way to look at musical ideas, there are a few natural directions for them to evolve over the course of a piece and there are tons of awkward, tedious, or uninteresting directions they can go. In working with the quintet, I had begun to make things more complicated than they needed to be, taking the music in directions that were forced and unnatural. Once I realized that by keeping things simple I could actually create a more effective piece, I was ready to dive back into composing the quintet.
At this point, I'm expecting to complete the writing-the-notes-down-on-the-page portion of the compositional process in the next couple of days. Then there are some other performance elements of the piece that I am eager to tackle, keeping in mind that these things can be both simple and effective. Working with creative ideas is a partnership of sorts, whether it's music or color or words or movement. There are certain traps I sometimes fall into about how complicated or difficult a piece of music has to be in order to be considered "legitimate". When I remember that I care more about the music being an effective and compelling experience for the listener, my choices almost always become clearer.