Geoff Edgers over at Boston.com’s Exhibitionist blog, posted a few thoughts today on composers’ attitudes to their early works. Some keep ‘em, some never want them to see the light of day, and some wish that, even if they might have become popular, they’d just go away.

I know I’m a pack-rat. I still have every cassette tape recording I ever made in my bedroom, starting at about age 15; and in a box in my garage is the musty, yellowed remnants of my first-ever score (titled Mountains, it opens with long string runs up and down a C diatonic scale… pretty darn original, huh?). I’m fifty-freaking-two now, and so much of this early stuff is embarassing, hilarious, even painful — so why do I still keep it all around? I suppose simply because it’s a record of me; most everything I became musically is hiding out in this or that phrase or moment.

How about you? Are you a hoarder, historian, or spin-meister? Do you want your musical story with warts and all, or all neat and tidy?

15 Responses to “Take Out the Trash?”
  1. Paul Beaudoin says:

    Steve:
    Having just moved to a new home I had to notice how much “stuff” I had, including ALL of my musical scores since zero hour. Several reasons kept me from chucking them. First, it’s a good reminder of where I came from (physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually). Second, “we” come from a generation that prizes the written document of some kind of record of our existence. If no one hears my .mp3 do I still exist? Lastly, and perhaps most egotisctally, when some future graduate student realizes that they “have” to do their PhD dissertation on my music, they will need access to all of the downtrodden paths I took to get to my masterpiece(s). LOL!

    These are documents that say “I was here” and if we don’t keep them, who will?

  2. Chris Becker says:

    Steve, man have you thought of putting together a mixtape of your early adolescent recordings into a CD or download? Sort of an edited suite that grabs some of the moments from those cassettes you made at 15?

    One enlightening experience I’ve had listening back to early works is the realization that the musical obsessions I had then remain with me still as I hurl towards 40. The ideas were all there in some composed form – and I perhaps unconsciously continued to explore them as the years went on.

  3. Steve Layton says:

    Trust me, Chris, the mix tape would never be worth all the effort. But as reminders of “obsessions”, as you say, it works pretty well. Repetition like crazy before I knew a note of Glass or Reich, Polytonality galore before I knew there was a Stravinsky or Milhaud…

    And electronic! No regular person had a synth then (1970-71), but I still fondly remember sitting on the bed with a shortwave radio droning static, an ancient bulky audio test oscillator with a big dial on the front, and a wooden flute with tape over the end and extra holes drilled in it, happily improvising away… I was even a closet teen pioneer in “cracked” electronics: taking the back off my portable AM/FM cassette player with built-in condensor mic, I would lay a screwdriver against and across the circuit board and wires, trying to shape horrendous amounts of feedback that were simultaneously recorded by the machine itself. Yikes, those crazy kids!

  4. Chris Becker says:

    Indeed. The tape recorder (and cassettes bought from Gold Circle – sort of a forerunner of Wal-Mart in the midwest) was my first instrument. Although I didn’t know it at the time! When the batteries were low, I discovered I could rerecord onto these cheap cassettes and hear both takes. I could layer as many recordings as I liked – overdubbing! Whoa!

    And of course the first experiment was to overdub belching. Whoa – musique concrete!

    I also recorded the television and my record player. Whoa! Sampling!

    And yet I’d listen to the Beatles’ on the radio (I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields) convinced that you had to have every single player on those recordings (including all the people talking and muttering) in a single room doing a single take of those songs. I was relieved recently to read that Andy Patridge of XTC had the same misconception when he first went into a recording studio with his band :)

  5. Chip Clark says:

    I’m still young (in terms of composing) but even with that I find many of the pieces I composed even just a few years ago to be very immature. I still have them – not sure why, other than I tend to keep everything in some form.

    Finished my first symphony recently – and although it took me 18 months to finish, I’m still happy with the bits written at 18 month ago, so I think I’m improving – in terms of writing stuff I still like as time goes on. We’ll see what I think when I’m on #3 or 4.

  6. Jay Batzner says:

    I nuke and pave my old stuff. I wrote it, I learned from it, and we need never speak of it again. There are times, rare times, that I salvage a piece. Just this year I salvaged a 10 year old clarinet sonatina which, as it turns out, isn’t so bad. And a sax quartet movement isn’t too shabby. Not great, but not embarrassing. Now, my second sax quartet? That is d-e-d dead. It is as if it never existed in the first place, thank doogness.

    I do have some regrets of trashing some works but nothing that makes me lose any sleep. The nice thing (and the dangerous thing) about the digital age is when I delete something, it is gone. No printed score, no Finale files, nothing to carry forward my shame. It will be interesting to see what I think of what I’m writing now 10 years in the future. Maybe what I should do is write a piece, sit on it for 10 years, and THEN determine if I like or not.

  7. david toub says:

    While I still have my early stuff, only a few things I’ve considered worthy of getting into Finale and up on my site. Up on the site I do have a live performance (ca. 1978) of the first piece I wrote that I truly felt was mine, along with two other relatively early pieces. I’m also in the process of getting another old score up on the site, which represents my first postminimalist work (although I definitely hadn’t heard the term ”postminimalist“ at that point, since I only read about it here a few years ago).

    I think there’s value in re-examining one’s early works. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff I cringe at (like a 12-tone ”Suite in Baroque Form“ for flute and harpsichord that, except for the Sarabande, is for the most part utter crap). But there’s also stuff there that bring back a lot of cool memories. Not stuff worthy of digitizing or otherwise sharing with others, but still nice to peruse after all these years.

    The problem is that if I spend a lot of time trying to get my pre-notation-software works into Finale, I won’t have the time to compose anything new. So it’s a balancing act.

  8. Elaine Fine says:

    I think it is great to keep my old stuff, especially material that I wrote before I really had the technique to turn it into useful music. I have had great success at re-working less-than-satisfactory pieces after completely forgetting about them, and then finding them years later. Time has a way of allowing a composer to be a little bit subjective. It also allows composers to become a bit more removed and a bit more flexible. Last year’s failed saxophone quartet, for example, could be rewritten to be a pretty good string quartet.

    People who sew keep material around. I like to think of my early pieces as bolts of material. You never know when something might come in handy.

  9. We just got over moving and as part of a general down-sizing we’re doing because of the size of our new apartment I decided to toss most of my early works. I threw away about 6 orchestra pieces, 3 string quartets and a bunch of chamber pieces, miscellaneous vocal pieces, choral pieces, and pieces I wrote at LSU as an undergraduate.

    I looked over everything carefully and considered if I might at some point want to revise some of the pieces. I kept a substantial amount, but I ended up tossing about 80% of the music I’ve written. But then I’ve written a gazillion pieces. In my bio, the part about ‘retracting all my early works’ well that was true, but the retraction hadn’t included the final, now accomplishted re-trash-ion. Now they’re all on Staten Island being pooped on my seagulls. :) Where they belong.

    I think it’s very important in this very confusing stylistic period that we clean house from time to time. There is already too much music. Performances are hard enough to get without creating confusion about a composer’s voice.

    My main fear was that some juvenalia would get performed for the wrong reasons when a recent piece should have been. I don’t want my idiotic distant past competing with my recent semi-competent past. ;)

    On a side note, any of you composers ever look up in Inter-Library loan and see what you have out there? I’ve got some tonal pieces that I threw away in public and college libraries! Talk about problematic… ugh. I just noticed that a few weeks ago. Well better than nothing I guess…

  10. Robert Jordahl says:

    I think I’ve saved everything I’ve ever composed, even the first piece I wrote at age 13. I’ve rarely tossed or revised anything. Now I don’t for one minute think everything is memorable. I guess I’ve done this with the thought that if I had a dry spell I could find something I could use.

  11. Brian Vlasak says:

    I’m not one to talk … after all, I’m only 28. That being said, yes, I have kept every work I’ve ever done. It’s pretty amazing, actually. The day that I drove out to Iowa for grad school (in 2004!? Really!? Yikes …), I happened across some old MIDI realizations of, what my friends in high school, gleefully called “Pickle Music” in reference to my last name, of course. Oh, how awful it was! Dreadful! Nonetheless, it gave me a great deal of perspective at a time when perspective was so desperately needed.

    Keeping what I’ve written has made me a better composer, because it allows me to see how I have developed; it allows me to see what ideas keep “popping up” in my work and how those ideas can be built upon. Keeping my work (and programs, recordings, financial statements, personal correspondence, etc…) also has the added benefit of having some form of tangible legacy for myself. In the times that maybe I’m not being performed as much as I would like, I can always crack open the Tupperware and remember what it was like before ANYTHING was performed.

    And it makes me smile just a little.

  12. This is all great fun. In 1974 I did my one and only detonacy (a word coined by Zoogz Rift) and destroyed all copies (that I knew of) of 40 of my pieces. It was a humbling experience because it was done before a crowd who could save each one for a bid of just $1. Not a one was saved.

    A few have turned up since, and I don’t get rid of pieces anymore. Unlike Jeff, I don’t care about a composer’s voice at a given moment, but rather the arc of creativity. And yes, because even a lot of early stuff is shamelessly online, sometimes it gets premiered. Last year a little piano piece from 1967 had its first performance (at Bob Jones University of all places!).

    I would like all composers to keep their works, even if in a crate in rented storage. We are devalued enough by society, and don’t need to devalue ourselves even more. When Gilles Bonneau died six years ago, he left his entire output to me — 17 boxes arrived from Seattle. It’s all carefully wrapped and is a psychological burden to be sure, but at some point there may be curiosity about a composer whose opus numbers ran into the high 300s.

    The only things I don’t keep are those that can’t be kept — installations, sound environments, improvisations. They exist as documentation (the Cristo school of preservation).

    Dennis

  13. Jeffrey Quick says:

    I’m a keeper…so Harrington’s comment drove me a bit over the bend. I don’t worry that anyone will play my juvenilia, given how small the chances are that they’ll play my maturia without me around to push them. I guess it’s that undergraduate music history degree…part of me would like to provide full employment for some grad student.

    Yes, there’s pre-current-catalog stuff out there on WorldCat. And nobody has ever tried to perform it. As Virgil Thomson supposedly said to Ned Rorem, “Don’t worry, baby, some works just sort of withdraw themselves.”

  14. Jeffrey, maybe you and Dennis just have written the absolutely atrocious crap that I have! I don’t want anybody to know how bad I was! Haha… That stylistic continuity comment I made was a bit thick… I really meant – quality continuity! :)

  15. Rusty says:

    I keep stuff, though God knows why. It’s such a cringe-inducing experience whenever I go thru the stuff in the basement.

    That said, one of my earliest pieces (Big Fiddle Ballet for solo cello) still gets played by the person it was (very specifically) written for. The piece sounds very young, but I have to admit I almost envy how fearless that version of me was. In someways, I’m trying to find my way back to that spirit (if with better maturity, perspective, blah blah).

    Still, some of the other stuff in the basement…shudder…

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