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Joan Tower

Pre-composition is not the real work

Relating to my January composing report, I rediscovered this gem from the LA Phil while looking up notes on Joan Tower’s Violin Concerto:

In an interview from 1987, Tower said, “Some composers know in advance just where they’re going. I don’t. In the beginning I have to spend a lot of time on where I am and where I’ve just been.” Her musical material is generated primarily by itself. In a recent telephone conversation, Tower explained further, saying, “You can have all kinds of pre-compositional ideas and extramusical things, but all of that pales in terms of reality, of what’s in front of you. The good composers, no matter how they compose, have to imagine the reality through notation.”

Pre-composition is seductive. Drawing diagrams, making charts, mapping an emotional journey — it’s all so easy and fun. But I’ve found that until I start working with the notes (“imagin[ing] the reality through notation,” as Tower puts it), I don’t make substantial progress. If I focus too much on my pre-compositional schemes can, they can end up frustrating me: “Why won’t my grand visions just translate into notes?”

That conflict never surprises me in prose. To chart out an article or essay before you’ve established its details would be harebrained. Prose is composed of thoughts, descriptions, paraphrases, quotes, and so on. To write a story you must collect these details.

Establishing a preset organization scheme doesn’t help you do that work. Whether by reading or interviewing or listening or free-writing, you must first gather the details. Even before you’ve gathered them all, you can start tinkering, asking questions, and identifying gaps for which you’d like to find more details. Eventually, you do form these complex structures and create a rhetorical journey, but the lifeblood of writing is the details.