Coached a fine young flutist who was working on my flute concerto the other day. The piece was completed in 1994, so I would have been working on it about 20 years ago. Going back to a piece that old is an exercise in wonderment – surprise at how good it is, surprise at how bad it is, and the disorienting experience of coming face-to-face with a composer in his early 30s who happens to be me, a me I could never be again – nor would I want to be.
These are familiar sensations to all composers, to one degree or another. But I also found myself confronting another experience I haven’t heard discussed so often.
Every musical idea has multiple potentials. Composing is, in a sense, a matter of choosing which potentials to tap into once an idea has been set in motion. That same idea, in a different work, could just as easily head off in a completely different direction. I frequently find myself going back to ideas from previous works, trying out new trajectories, exploring characteristics left untouched in earlier compositions. In that sense, an idea gets developed within a given piece, but also gets developed over the course of my output.
Looking through the 20-year-old flute concerto, I found a number of seeds that bore different fruit in other works, some earlier, some later. There were even a couple of notions I still find useful today.
And then there are the dead ends: ideas that served their purposes in the concerto, but have had no further use. As I study them, I can’t help but wonder what they lacked, why certain collections of notes, rhythms or gestures have a more powerful personal resonance than others. It’s as though some musical ideas promise hidden kernels of truth that keep me digging away, through the hours, through the years, hoping to uncover them.