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In this series titled "Composer Dilemmas," I would like to relfect on issues in the process of composition. How deterministic will this piece be, performance-wise? Once 'finished,' does it remain so? How will the scale of the composition, or the forces for which it calls, affect the final experience? These issues, though less discussed in music courses, are much more fundamental than questions such as "should I write a tonal or atonal piece?"

Recycling old pieces

In my recent posts on Composer Dilemmas, I reflected on the ideas of revision, withdrawing works from one's catalog, and creating different versions of pieces. Closely related to the last is the idea of recycling old pieces. If simple to moderate revision is not enough, if the piece warrants placement in the circular file except for a few sections, perhaps recyling is a viable option.

In earlier centuries, composers often recycled their own works - movements from one suite would show up in another, an opera may feature an aria from another opera, etc. As composers had their pieces performed in different places, they would learn what parts 'worked,' and adapt them to the tastes of new audiences.

Over time, the Western classical music field has become very much a 'tradition,' where works are inviotable, set in stone. But it is very possible that many composers would not mind if someone chose to play the opening and finale of a string quartet with the slow movement and minuet-trio from two other string quartets, so long as they worked together (were in the same or related keys, for example). Of course many would object, rightfully so if similar material (thematic or emotional) were explored within a piece.

Why not mix and match? Why not reexamine ideas from a previous work?

As mentioned in my previous post, there is a great overview of Roger Reynolds's Transfigured Wind series on the Library of Congress site. Reynolds composed a piece for solo flute in 1965 named Ambages, and this solo provides much of the source material for the Transfigured Wind series, which consists of several related versions - flute solo with or without orchestra, tape, and chamber orchestra.

Similarly, Luciano Berio composed a series of solo pieces called the Sequenzas. He used several of these as starting points for his Chemins series - works for soloist and ensemble. Listen to these videos below. The first is a viola solo (Sequenza VI), the second is a work for viola and ensemble (Chemins II), and the third is for viola and orchestra (Chemins III). There is also a Chemins IIb for orchestra only, but I can't find a recording of it.

Berio and Reynolds are interesting for comparison, since recordings exist of the work from which the following works are derived. Of course, there are many more examples, known and unknown, of works by composers which are based in part on previous works. I often find myself thinking of new ways in which I can recycle my previous, discarded works. Possibly years from now I will be recycling the works that I am currently writing.

Since the romantic era, there has been an assumption that artists should be original, and that each artwork should also be original (moreso in music - visual arts seem to encourage the exploration of a theme through a series of works). Besides being an impossibility, this is not a practical approach. Most composers today are lucky to receive more than one performance of a work, so what is to stop them from reworking the same material at a later date? Due to the worship of the "masters," composers expect to leave a legacy (some even apply Opus numbers to their own works!). Audience will be largely unaware of any recycling (deliberate or subconscious), and this would only be apparent on a retrospective concert, late in one's career when one has hopefully composed several substantial, and different, works.

So if you like that one flute passage, but the rest of the piece is terrible, no sense wasting it. That small stroke of genius may be the impetus for your first great piece.


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Luciano Berio


Classical Music
20th Century Music