I know it's "What-if Wednesday," but this week I need to post on the beautiful performance I received last night of my big song cycle, "Silences."
This piece began as a 12-minute set of four songs for baritone and piano, written for one of my grad school friends back at Rice in the mid-1990s. The piece never felt complete to me, though. It felt like the songs needed more space around them – non-vocal/verbal space. So a few years later I added some piano interludes between some of the songs. Better, but something was still not right. Add a few more years (now we’re at 2002), and I realized that the entire thing needed to be broadened further. I would add two more songs, but perhaps more importantly the entire piece would be woven together as a through-composed piece and scored for chamber ensemble. I realized to needed to really press into the “silences” aspect of the text, so there are relatively few points when all the instruments are playing; I would add a “Song Without Words” (a duo for violin and piano); and there would be a “Silent Song” consisting purely of text projected in silence above the ensemble. The new interludes would allow me to wed together musical motives and ideas to create a much more holistic musical fabric for the songs to reside in.
This new expanded version was premiered in 2004 by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and their wonderful baritone, Timothy Jones. It was a huge step forward: I knew it was where the piece needed to go. But it still wasn’t quite right. The text setting was solid, but I still hadn’t quite found the right “voice” for the harmonic language. It was like looking at a painting that was slightly out of focus and needed to be sharpened. I had another opportunity to perform a revised version with PNME in 2012, though this time my revisions were more tweaks and tinkering than anything major. Once again I felt progress, but once again it still didn’t feel as sharp as it needed to be.
At this point I let it be. I figured if another opportunity to perform the piece presented itself I would take another swing at getting things exactly right. That opportunity presented itself recently when my newest colleague at University of Colorado asked if he could sing it. I made some further revisions – including completely rewriting a couple of passages and polishing the orchestration – and once again put it on the stage.
This time, it feels right. And my faculty colleagues did a wonderful job with the performance. Being a piece that was 25 years in the making, it was a particularly special evening.
I was struck by how this process embodies an important entrepreneurial principle, too: that of iteration. Something every seasoned entrepreneur will tell you is that the first version of a product or idea is rarely the one that ends up in the marketplace. Testing, customer trials, and feedback from others results in revisions – some of which might be nothing more than minor tweaks, others of which might be significant, perhaps even transformational. You keep iterating until you get it right. In fact, for some products (things like technology, for instance), this process of feedback and improvement and new versions never really ends: it’s a regular and ongoing, and is even expected/demanded by consumers.
As is often the case with applying entrepreneurial principles to the arts, the example of iteration both translates well and has some important differences. Specifically, my process of iteration with “Silences” was not based on customer feedback but rather my own evaluation of my work. While that’s an important distinction, it nevertheless underscores the importance of revising and iterating in creating anything of value. Unless you’re Mozart, even the most accomplished of us require more than one attempt to get something “right.” All the great masters were revisers: Beethoven worked his material endlessly; Bruckner was almost pathologically unable to stop revising his pieces. Mahler, too. Debussy labored over Pelleas and Melisande for years. Britten completely rewrote his masterpiece opera Billy Budd, condensing it from four acts into two and both removing and reworking vast swaths of music.
Despite these and countless other examples, creatives (especially composers) have bought into the myth that once you finish a piece and it’s premiered, it’s locked into permanence. I remember my teachers telling me to just write another piece rather than revise something I’d already done, but this never made sense to me: if I could make the piece better, why wouldn’t I do that?
Understanding entrepreneurship has helped me fully embrace the notion of revision – of product iteration, essentially. In the last year I’ve undertaken a series of revisions of a number of pieces, and in each case it has been time well spent that has strengthened my work and strengthened the audience experience of it. Last night was the most dramatic example so far – I hope every piece I write from now on doesn’t take me 25 years to “finish”! But it was also the most satisfying. Giving myself permission to get it “right” the first time – or even the second, third, or fourth time – has freed up my creative voice in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and helped me see my work as an ongoing process rather than a series of fixed projects with discrete ending points. It’s another example of my entrepreneurial Muse in action.