There are several points in the course of working on a piece when I think I know what the material is about. Typically I have this feeling when I’m beginning a piece, when I’ve finished it and several times between.
But it’s usually an illusion. I almost never understand exactly what a composition is doing until long after it’s been completed, if then. There are always a few twists and turns that pop up along the way to confound me.
When I say that the sensation of understanding a piece I’m working on is an illusion, though, I don’t mean to convey any frustration. Quite the opposite: there are few things more enjoyable that being thrown for a loop by a piece of music you thought you had a good grasp on.
Also, the illusion of understanding is actually very useful. I can move forward through a piece with some measure of confidence when I think I know where I am going. Even if I am just fooling myself, that confidence is crucial to making headway.
I’ve started composing again, after a six-month hiatus. I can’t believe I actually stopped composing for 6 months, after 20 years of having several pieces going at once. And, in fact, I did do a bit of revision over those six months – I just didn’t have any new, unperformed work emerging on my desk, which was a very unfamiliar feeling.
Getting back to composing has been equally disorienting. On the one hand, I’m finding it exceedingly easy – I know exactly what I want to do next at any given point. On the other hand, I have this creeping anxiety that it couldn’t really be this easy – I must have forgotten some crucial step in the process that is going to make this piece fall flat on its ear.
And that’s where the illusion of knowing where I am going comes in handy. As long as I think I know what I’m doing, I can do it. When I stop to reflect on how uncertain I am, everything grinds to a halt.
I blame the six-month break on Eugene Drucker. Back in January, he told me he was taking a few days off from playing the violin. He’s such a great violinist, I thought maybe I should try taking a few days off from composing.
Next thing I knew, it was July.