While I’m sure I’ve had similar experiences dozens of times before, I’ve been reflecting lately on certain related aspects of my work on two recent pieces: a large-ensemble piece and a small piano lullaby written for someone I know.
Early in the conception of the large-ensemble piece, I sketched down some ideas for dynamics in different sections. Subsequent to this, I drew up a plan regarding instrumentation: the music would disintegrate into smaller and smaller subgroups of the large ensemble over the course of the entire piece.
As I put the piece into Sibelius, I came not to yearn for the dynamics I was going to input later. The timbral contrast was adequate to sustain interest. So I decided to leave the dynamic at a steady forte throughout the piece.
But then something else worried me.
The instrumentation became too thin, too quickly. The piece was in danger of sounding small, in spite of the loud dynamic. I rethought the instrumentation and created larger subgroups of the ensemble. In order to do this, of course, different subgroups had to have more instruments in common. As a result, the timbral contrast decreased.
Playing the score over again, I began to need dynamics again. So in went the dynamics – more or less along the lines I had conceived months earlier. The lost contrast needed compensating for, and the music improved.
I had a similar experience in the lullaby – even though this was a casual piece I wrote in only an hour and a half.
As I looked over the work, a small crescendo I had written seemed oddly lifeless, despite the music’s ascending contour. The crescendo needed a push, some gentle impetus to announce “something different” was about to happen.
Comparing the crescendo’s initiating harmony with the two preceding it, I noticed the harmony beginning the crescendo was more consonant than the previous two. With a little futzing around, I came up with a more dissonant sonority that fit into the texture and disrupted the surface of the music to the right amount. Playing the piece over again, I found the crescendo now made much more sense: it was an unfolding of the tension created by the new harmony.
The ability to balance sensitively different parameters of composition – like instrumentation, dynamics, and harmony – is a lifelong task for all composers. Naturally, to balance parameters sensitively also means the ability to throw music off balance once in a while. But these recent experiences have made me more alert to an “invisible hand” behind the process of composition – one that has forced me, unexpectedly, to go back to music I’ve written and made adjustments.
I’m wondering how many of you think about composition in similar ways.