Clever Accidents

[Before the main post today, a quick administrative note: I’m helping out at the Hear Now Festival all this weekend, so it’s very unlikely that I’ll have a Music Monday post for you on the 25th. The series will continue with a regular post on May 2. Thank you for your understanding!]

I’m in the middle of writing an oboe sonata! And I really do mean in the middle — I’ve gotten past the initial stages of figuring out the opening and the basic musical materials, and now I’m in the messy central stretches of picking those materials apart and recombining them into a compelling path to the double bar. Sometimes I sit down beforehand and hammer out intricate plans for the innards of pieces like this, but sometimes I just dive in and figure out what the piece wants to be in the process of writing the thing. This piece very much falls into the latter category.

It can be harrowing to work like this, but it can also be a great deal of fun. Writing music feels like playing with sound, and working without a pre-set flightplan is a great way to engage with that childish joy: I’m free to follow any musical thread that catches my attention without worrying about whether it’s going to take me where (I think I) need to go.

Of course, once I do get to the double bar, this kind of piece usually calls for a lot of editing. If the first draft is figuring out what the piece wants to be, the next one is making it actually be that thing. I’ve left a lot of music on the cutting room floor over the years from pieces like this. Sometimes they’re genuinely good passages, but they just don’t fit with the arc that it settled into, so they had to go. Once I’m out of the thick of getting the initial draft out, I can prune away these excess branches, leaving something that’s organic without being wayward or rambling.

Even tho this trimming mentality isn’t good to have while I’m actively writing — it’s hard to uninhibitedly follow fun leads that catch your ear if you’re constantly also trying to figure out if they’re going to make the final cut — I still find myself slipping into it from time to time, which usually results in uncertainty and self-doubt. Over the years, I’ve become decent at pushing thru and cranking the piece out anyway, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t still struggle with turning off my inhibitions and letting the music flow.

With this oboe sonata, I was running into that kind of trouble with a new theme that had insisted on inserting itself at an unexpected place. I liked it as a theme, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything else that had happened in the sonata so far, and I was struggling to feel good about continuing to work it out and weave it into the texture of the piece — it had the feel of something I was going to have to prune later, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend a lot of time on it if I was just going to wind up throwing it away.

But I liked it. Plus, it really wanted to be there; it emerged so naturally from the preceding music, and in some back corner of my head, it just felt right. So I kept toying with it, and made a surprising discovery: Even tho this new theme was in no way a variation or re-arrangement of anything that had come before, it still included several instances of a critical set of notes that also underpinned the first theme of the entire work.

Suddenly I had a key. Even tho that set of notes is pretty hidden in the new theme, there are ways of manipulating it to make them more obvious, ways to make the link between this new theme and the opening one obvious enough that it sounds like it belongs, despite being cut from distant cloth. I’m still not sure how much I’ll make use of this possibility — there are times where I think it’s more effective to leave things mysterious and hidden — but just knowing that it’s there makes me feel much more comfortable and confident about where this piece is going.

When things like this happen — when I find unintentional musical connections between things that I thought were quite separate — it’s tempting to ascribe them to some subconscious cleverness on my part. The creative process is a mysterious one, and it’s easy to believe that on some deep level some part of me knew about this connection without the conscious part of my mind being aware of it. It’s also kind of ego-boosting and self-congratulatory: “I’m so clever, even I don’t know all the clever things I’m doing!”

But I think there’s a simpler explanation.

I like certain things. When I’m composing, I don’t just write down the very first thing that comes to mind. I try out lots of stuff, toying with a multitude of ideas before committing to one or the other of them. And the deciding factor for that is which one I like the most. It’s not a sophisticated process; it’s literally me going “ooh! That was nice! I like that one! Write it down!”. Given that, is it really so surprising that some of the things I write down have similar patterns of notes in them? My tastes certainly change over time, but not from minute to minute, or even month to month. If I like a certain set of notes in one guise, it’s not terribly surprising that I’ll like it in another, even if I don’t consciously see the set in either place. There a lot of notes between two themes, and zooming in on four that they both happen to share is, in some ways, finding a pattern out of random static. Since I’m writing the piece, I can take advantage of that pattern, I can use it to create meaning and order going forward, I can strengthen it and turn it into a pattern that governs the whole work, but its mere presence before I do any of that is, to my mind, not a terribly compelling sign of any subconscious cleverness on my part. It’s a random accident nudged along by my latent musical tastes, not a sign that I have some unknown brilliance in the background pulling the strings. (This goes double because there are doubtless many other similarities between these two themes that I haven’t noticed and never will, patterns I will never take advantage of and that will thus remain forever coincidental — tho, again, no more coincidental than the pattern that I am aware of and planning to work with.)

That these connections are accidental byproducts of taste doesn’t make them any less useful to me as a composer, nor does it make them inappropriate things to note in future analyses. One of the beautiful things about making art is the discovery of unintended complexity and nuance. That’s not at all something that I want to shy away from. I just don’t think I deserve credit for it, either. A useful, clever accident is still an accident, after all, and that’s just fine. Things don’t need to be intentional to be full of beauty and meaning. Embracing the happenstance is not at odds with making quality art.