I’m in complete-disarray mode working on my fifth string quartet these days. The piece is going to be a set of variations on the Welsh tune “All Through the Night.” I say variations, but it’s kind of a mega-variation concept. Here is the form, as it’s playing out so far:

Twilight
Variations
Dream interlude
Chaconne
Dream interlude
Passacaglia
Dream interlude
Variations
Twilight

There are two crazy things about composing this piece. First of all, the theme is really simple. Not only is it tonally limited, the form is about as dully repetitive as you can get: AABA. (for comparison, another “simple” tune, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” has a form that is all over the place: ABACDEFGHIHJKLKMNONM – how does any kid ever memorize that tune?) Measuring out how much to vary those repetitions within each variation is giving me lots to chew on.

The other crazy thing about composing this piece is the process I’ve taken. I started by drafting variations at random – just every idea I had about the theme. Then I started assembling the ideas into workable groupings. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much material before I even began “composing” before. Usually I have, at most, a handful of ideas. Now I’ve got a huge pile of music paper I’m trying to organize into a coherent whole – and a pretty substantial discard pile is mounting up.

Traditionally, in a theme and variations, you state the theme first. For the last hundred years, though, it has become unusual to state the theme clearly first, if ever. Part of me likes the idea of doing the obvious thing – but there is no obvious thing in this case – every possible approach is a cliché. I love being boxed in by clichés: I’m forced to do something obvious, and I have to try to do it better than it’s ever been done before.

Some composers strain to avoid cliché — in a situation like this, I welcome cliché, because it takes that much more skill and imagination to make the music fresh.

Another issue I’m dealing with is clarity vs. interest. I don’t get my kicks out of burying a theme where nobody can find it, in the hopes that some theory professor I’ve never met suddenly has a eureka moment in a distant ivory tower. I want any interested listener to be able to pick out the theme at any given moment. But there is a danger – how am I going to keep 25 minutes of one theme from getting tedious or too obvious? I’m hoping my Dream Interludes will provide some respite, but I’m also aware of the problem of going away from an idea, then returning to it. The return has to feel like something new, or you’re just spinning the listener in circles.

These are the challenges I’m facing – and one of my favorite things about composing is being faced with challenges I don’t quite know how I’m going to overcome.

For the first few weeks of working on this piece, I stayed away from sketching the initial “Twilight” section, worrying that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it. Then, the other night, I just plunged into it, and a few hours later I had something better than I had imagined possible.

So far so good – the piece is definitely smarter than I am.

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