In this series titled "Composer Dilemmas," I would like to relfect on issues in the process of composition. How deterministic will this piece be, performance-wise? Once 'finished,' does it remain so? How will the scale of the composition, or the forces for which it calls, affect the final experience? These issues, though less discussed in music courses, are much more fundamental than questions such as "should I write a tonal or atonal piece?"
In my last post, I mused on the act of revision. This idea also calls to mind the notion of withdrawing works from one's oeuvre. As any artist grows, they will recognize mistakes or better means to accomplish their creative goals. Previous pieces may not live up to their current standards. Does one revise or withdraw?
When I look back at my own catalog, I see potential in many of my pieces, so my personal preference is to revise. However, some pieces may be so naive and juvenile that it may be better to simply remove them from the catalog, pretending they never happened.
Commercially, pretending subpar pieces were never written would help me seem like a stronger composer. At the same time, it is fun to look back at pieces I wrote several years ago, to see how far I have come. I have withdrawn a few pieces, but I keep most 'around' (i.e. listed on my website) - there are elements of each that I like, and I want them to be available if someone likes and wishes to perform them. However, more than simply having them performed, I would want to work with the performers to, yes, revise and improve the pieces.
Withdrawing is a decision made by the artist, but sometimes a withdrawn piece can continue with a life on its own. Jennifer Higdon discusses here her own experience, as well as that of her teacher George Crumb, with the act of withdrawing pieces. An old flute choir piece which 'horrifies' her now is often xeroxed and has been recorded several times. Crumb had to buy back the rights of some early pieces from his publisher to take them off the market.
I wrote an electroacoustic piece based on the poem In Flanders Fields. It was the second electracoustic piece I ever wrote, but many of my friends and colleagues enjoyed it quite a lot. Somehow it came up that I was withdrawing the piece (I don't remember how - I suppose because someone asked me to submit it to a concert/contest). No one could understand! But I knew that I could do better - the piece is a very straightforward reading and text painting of the poem. Maybe I'll return to it someday, but probably not.
A potential problem, though, is that I placed it on a student composer CD. Copies exist, and it is possible (though unlikely in the extreme) that someday, someone will dust off one of those CDs and present the work in public. Perhaps someone will rip the CD to iTunes and it will become a highly-traded underground mp3. Right now it exists largely in the memory of those who heard it in about 4 or 5 concerts, but the fact that there are copies out there beyond my control means that the piece still has a potential life.
In today's digital age, where copies are the same quality as the original, can a piece truly be 'withdrawn?' If records exist about the piece (such as concert reviews), does that mean that the piece still exists in some way? Will a composer's reputation be hurt by the memory of a terrible piece, even if the composer admits that the piece is terrible?