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Notes from a composer, Part 12 - Endings

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 11:38 UK Time, Monday, 6 February 2012


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Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his final post explaining the process ...

I read terribly slowly, and not so long ago, after months of reading, I finished Anna Karenina. As happens with every book I like – and this one I truly loved – I am driven on in the last chapters to know the end, and so things speed up. And yet, at the same time, I dwell on every page, then every sentence, not wanting the delectable moments to finish. It feels like saying goodbye to a dear friend and it makes me sad.

It’s not so very different when I come to the end of a piece, especially one I’ve taken a long time over, as in the case of 'Bohortha'. And in the last two weeks as I have been polishing and re-polishing the last movement, I have both accelerated towards the last notes, and held off drawing the final double-bar line.

Things do often seem to come easier, quicker at the close – and still it takes me by surprise. Only three days before I completed my work, I thought I was still a long way off. I didn’t know if the textures were too full, or which way the final bars would indeed go. I wasn’t sure if I had done enough to capture the multi-time world I was trying to evoke in this last movement, which shares the same title as the piece as a whole. In my previous blog I was still deliberating over minutiae of patterns: would the end stay in a slow 5-beat time? Would it give way to ametrical music? Would it all sound too predictable, and so monotonous, if I wasn’t careful?

And then suddenly two days before I finished, all somehow fell into place. Yes, I would keep the 5-time – but I would overlay it with something of the 3- and 4- time to have one more take on superimposition of metre. Yes, the opening of the whole work would be re-visited – but I would not end it there. No, that would be too ‘neat’. And so, yes, a final – longer – ametrical section would end the whole work. And the notes to fill these large ideas came easily – just flowed out – as they very occasionally do, when I am, as it were, really in the moment. And when that happens, concerns – as it were from a critical distance – as to the danger of boredom, evaporate. The piece has to be as it is.

It is a rare event, this. Perhaps it is akin to inspiration, the kind of thing composers know all too well is largely a thing of fantasy. We are usually not ‘vessels through which pieces are written’. Neither, too, was Stravinsky as his sketchbooks for the Rite of Spring show well, even though it amused him to propagate the myth. But there are these moments, epiphanies, where things do speak; and I feel in touch with something, dare I say, larger than myself.

And a certain, brief, serenity comes from this. Perhaps it may not seem a surprise that such calm centring in the act of composition comes with the composition of something calm – as the end of my piece tries to be. But it certainly need not be that way. Nor is there any correlation, I have to say, between calm and quality. Anxiety can also lead to good things. Still, my work’s whole trajectory is from turbulence to release – as so much of my music continues to be – and so it is meaningful, and even moving, for me, that the final moments of the compositional process itself actually led to internal calm.

Art imitates life, it’s sometimes said – or do I mean the other way round?! At any rate, what is perhaps less remarked upon is the relationship between an artist’s work, the product, and the process that leads to it – how one is intimately bound up with the other; how a piece for the composer has as much to do with the way of making it as what is being made; and how much the act of composing may affect the final result.

I hope this blog, in some small way, has shed a little light on this – on the usually private and elusive world of the composition studio: on the slow-motion assemblage that is composing; on the doubts; on the decisions that may then change; on the big ideas, and then the detailed working out that can alter those ideas; on when it flows and when it doesn’t; on the way a composer – at least this composer! – works.




  • Comment number 1.

    Since the spirit of the music can be reflected in the composer writing about it then it can be a good guide as to whether or not to invest one's exponentially felt diminishing time in the consumption of his product.


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