Composerly Thoughts

What revisiting YESTERDAY’S music taught me about TODAY

What revisiting YESTERDAY’S music taught me about TODAY

Once when I was a graduate student, I told a composition professor that I was completely rewriting a two-year-old piece. He responded: “Always look forward, never back!”

A few years later, a fellow composer shared a similar story. “Quit picking at it!” his teacher told him. “You’ll make it bleed.”

So when I decided to revisit some of my older pieces this year, I was not surprised when several composer colleagues counseled me to just focus on my new music.

All of this is good advice. Really really good advice, actually.

But there are still times when I look at a piece composed in a previous decade and think: “Sure, this is an imaginative, well-crafted, oft-performed piece, but I’m not entirely convinced by how I navigated this little sticky spot. Man, I totally know how to nail this sucker now!”

So against ALL conventional wisdom, I turned down a couple of choral commissions this past year and instead 1) I turned some of my good choral music into what I consider to be terrific choral music, and 2) I wrote a bunch of country music songs.

You’ll have to wait for my NEXT newsletter to hear my country music (stay tuned!), but in this newsletter I’ll share some of this past year’s “Adventures in Rewrites.” Otherwise known as “Revisionist History.” (I know, I know. I think I’m funny but I’m not.)

The Gate is Open (SATB)
When South Metro Chorale artistic director Mark Bilyeu contacted me last fall about performing this meditative winter song, he had no idea what he was in for! My original setting contained complex textures and multiple soloists, but I knew in my heart that this poem of mystery and faith deserved a sparer, ethereal treatment.My new setting retains the haunting opening melody, but after that it unfolds in a completely different way!

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (SSA)
When Lumina Women’s Ensemble offered to record my arrangement of this Polish folk carol, I jumped at the opportunity! A couple of days before the recording session I opened the score to adjust a teensy weensy little tessitura issue, but instead I found myself imagining Appalachian folk harmonies and vocal inflections. This new edition contains both arrangements, the “classically conceived” one (with the tessitura problem fixed, yes!) along with a winnowing, soulful rendition.

We Lift Up Our Hearts (Children’s choir, adult choir and piano)
I always thought this was a “partner song.” First the children sing their part by themselves, and then they sing it again along with the adult choir’s complementary part. Easy, right? Well, maybe too easy. A few years ago I realized that because the adults never perform their part alone, the children never get a chance to practice listening. And isn’t listening essential to all partnerships?! I’m delighted to announce that this song is now a true partner song!

Before the Bread (Available for SATB or SSAA)
The three aforementioned pieces each took days or weeks to revise, which was longer than I’d predicted. But perfecting this little folk blessing took 15 minutes. (Actually it only took 3 minutes, but it took me 12 minutes to get over my surprise!) The magic thing about this solution is that it only involved changing four notes, but that’s all that was needed. Suddenly the vocal range of the canon was smaller and the melody was more graceful. Whew, sometimes creative work really does work like that!

I promised you I’d tell you what I learned through this process, right? Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Revising pieces does not make them bleed.
  2. Revisiting yesterday’s music can be rewarding, as long as one doesn’t try to rewrite EVERYTHING! Some of my early pieces were given a nostalgic and loving relegation to my archives.
  3. If I’m not careful I can go down my own personal Rabbit Hole of Perfection. Fortunately I have a fabulous weekly meeting with four colleagues at which we refine our our professional priorities, define our work strategies, and pull each other out of rabbit holes.
  4. Lastly, I don’t regret any of the time I spent making decisions about these and other older pieces! It’s all part of getting more space in my brain for some new and exciting directions!

As always, I wish you well with all your own creative endeavors.

Take care, and keep believing impossible things —