In preparing my piece “Into the Woods” for its Carnegie Hall premier, I had to make a few minor edits. It was interesting looking back at an old piece, particularly one like this, which is part of a much larger work. As I was editing, I rewrote a couple things, essentially adding to the orchestration. In the process, thoughts of going back over my old works and reviewing, editing, and rewriting them came to mind.
Is this a good idea? I mean, I’m always on the fence about that. Clearly there are some works that I will never revise or rewrite. I spoke about one in a previous post. Still, the decision to revise or rewrite is something that artists have gone back and forth on for as long as there has been art.
Usually the process of revision happens for me in the studio while we are recording, and while working with the performers. In those situations, the adjustments are minor and really make the piece better. But what about just looking over works that have been written but not performed or recorded? Is it worth the time to review and possibly rewrite, or is the time better spent in the creation of new things? How do you decide?
The short answer is: there is no answer. For me it really depends on the piece and my reason for revising the work. I know some pieces are going to be fine. There are other pieces that almost seem like a first draft, and still others have sections that I’ve never been satisfied with. The latter seems like the easiest to take on, but even that is not so simple, since I’m not the same person that I was when I wrote it originally. So, does that mean I have a better solution to the problem now that I’ve grown, or will it feel out of place with the previous decisions I made when I originally composed the piece?
I write a lot. I write every day. I show up at the page and write something, even if it is just one note, even if I delete it the next day. As a result, I’ve written a lot of music, and as a result, I’ve grown a lot. That means there are pieces I can choose from when I have the money or opportunity to record.
In my current situation, and with the types of work I’m doing now, recording seems the best way to get my stuff out there. If the works were receiving live performances, those “studio” conversations would happen more often as the piece was being rehearsed. So, what are the deciding factors when choosing whether to revise or not?
One of the questions I ask myself is “Why am I even thinking about revising this?” Is it to make it a “better” piece? But, “better” is defined from the perspective of who I am now. If I am imprinting who I am now on a past work, does that change what I was trying to say then, and does it make it harder or impossible for someone discovering my music to understand my current work, particularly if I’m lucky enough to be one of those composers whose work is remembered and performed hundreds of years from now?
I see this whole revision thing as time travel in a way. If you were able to go back in time and change your past, would you? If you did, it would affect who you are in the present and would change countless other things. We are all familiar with the butterfly effect.
But, what if the work is bad? Well, as in life, we all have moments that, looking back, make us want to curl into a ball and cringe with embarrassment, at least I do, but I embrace those moments and learn from them, not dwelling on them, but chalking them up to a learning experience. We should all have moments and events like that in our past. If we do, then it means we have grown.
Besides, how do we define “bad”? There are some songs, (usually pop pieces) that I loved at a certain stage of my life. Looking back on them now, they seem so bad. Still they spoke to me in that moment and in that time because that is where I was then, but not now. So, would the process of rewriting or revising, change a work to the point where it would deprive someone who would have connected with it in its original form, the ability to connect with my work now?
Is revising a piece dedication to good art and good work, or is it simply ego? We can look back on the earlier works of some famous composers and we see the trajectory of their growth as an artist. When we revise older works, are we sacrificing the larger narrative of our growth as an artist for some ego driven quest for perfection? Is it trying to rewrite some embarrassing incident from our past, instead of viewing it as a step in the process that brought us to where we are? Maybe this is all a moot point. With electronic versions of everything, you can revise something but keep the original.
For me it is a moot point right now. Since I have a budget, I only record works that I feel are the strongest. This itself, is a form of editing. Plus, I am always working on new projects. Currently I am in the middle of writing a new piece and have the story and ideas for another after that. If an opportunity comes for a past work to be performed, I will look at it then, and decide. But for now, I’m comfortable with what has come before because it has led me to where I am now.
For those of you reading this, how do you decide?