Retrospect as Power-Tool!

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I had a boss once who'd say, "I don't care what's on your resume. I don't care what you did before; I care what you can do right now." I saw his point when it came to certain b-schoolers on staff, but for my own purposes I thought of it more like, "Hey, sweet! Every day is a new opportunity to do something amazing! No baseline needed!"

Yeah, I'm Pollyanna like that.

Well, last week, I gave a talk about my composing work to a class of composition students, several working on their masters' degrees in composition. It turned out to be a great opportunity for retrospection: how I started, the multiple paths I've maintained (so like a Gemini), my graduate studies, my many and varied extra-curricular pursuits, the incredible people I've gotten to work with, what about my work has changed and what hasn't.

The Spreadsheet For Section 2
Evidence that during my thesis composition process, I was clearly out of my mind. In a good way.

 

Given that my audience would be a bunch of students preoccupied with thesis work, I decided to spend the bulk of the talk discussing my own. When I began preparing my slides, though, I realized that I might have to turn to my not-terribly-consistent journals for details about how I constructed my thesis, because it was 10 years ago. Like a place I used to live, it's got certain landmarks that I've retained and used to navigate conversations about such things over the years: It's called Name Day and is for electronics, oboe and cello; it's based on the prose poem of the same name by the remarkable Teresa Phillips; it deals with her diagnosis with bone cancer as a toddler and the aftermath; and it employs serial techniques – the use of external information (in this case, the poem itself and aspects of Teresa's post-op X-rays) to drive musical decisions. That much, I can recite on command. Any deeper, though...

Because, you know, I'm not crazy about paper at this point; I try not to collect or keep it. And to my memory, I've only recently become disciplined about documenting how each of my pieces is put together and especially how it's performed. I've had to, though, because so many of my compositions – in contrast to my thesis piece – use some new/different combination of gadgets than the last; are performed by me as structured improvs and so not typically scored; and are performed once, maybe twice, right after completion and then not again for months or even years. So by comparison, I wasn't sure how much I would've documented 10 years ago about a piece that resulted in a definitive score. What more was to document? And how much of the supporting material would I have bothered to keep?

Chicken Scratch 

 

But I looked through our bookcases anyway – and was rewarded with the spoils of being supremely Type A (about some things). Each item I unearthed brought a bigger smile and a stronger rush of memories than the one before. There was the original master print, complete with front matter describing the compositional process (phew!). Behind that, photocopies of the original hand-written score. In another section of the same shelf, the abused but still-legible prints of the spreadsheets in which I painstakingly tracked certain details of the piece – one for each of the three sections of the piece, and each one a taped-together tiling of 9 or more letter-sized sheets. Sooooo OCD!

Each of those documents represents hours upon hours of teeth-gnashing and triumph, self-doubt and certitude, and above all, complete surrender to the process. I worked so incredibly hard on it. I can see the spreadsheets tacked to the wall of my bedroom studio, the blue spiral music notebook I carried everywhere for months, and the lights hitting the performers as they took the stage for the premiere. These memories, and what they say about my capacity for hard work and even healthy obsession, could reinvigorate me on the worst of days.

Page One
Page 1. Beginnings, endings, all good.

 

To that former boss, I'd throw a well-worn business maxim: If you can't measure it, you can't improve it. In Composing Kitchen language, I'd say that retrospection doesn't have to be a consolation, an indulgence or a crutch; it can be a tool. Knowing what you're capable of can propel you to do something that's not just amazing, but even more amazing.

So go ahead: Read over your resume – be it literal or figurative – and then vow to exceed everything on it.

If you'd like more detail about Name Day and/or to hear excerpts,
leave a comment. I'll be happy to tell you a ridiculous amount
based on my copious documentation.

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