Raveling, Unraveling

I’m working on an orchestral piece, an overture. When I first committed to the project, I was awash with excitement and ideas. But next I felt overwhelmed by the blank canvas. It wasn’t writer’s block. Instead, I was like a mosquito at a nudist camp: seeing opportunity everywhere but having no idea where to start.

I realized that I was trying to solve too many problems at once and had too few constraints. Duration, structure, harmonic language, orchestration, vibe, etc. Everything was up for grabs, which meant I actually had too much freedom. I remembered something that Igor Stravinsky wrote in Poetics of Music.

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self… the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

I returned to my blank canvas. Which constraints would I impose? For no special reason, I thought of the Ravel string quartet in F major. That’s a piece I’ve loved since I was a teenager. (Last year, my wife and I invited a string quartet to perform the piece in our house. I sat about four feet from the violist. I had never appreciated all of the internal lines and motivic ingenuity of the piece before hearing it so intimately.)

Simply because of my love for Ravel’s work, I decided to pattern my orchestral piece after the Quartet’s fourth movement. (Not to mention “vif et agité” sounds like me most days.) I like his method of developing melodic cells, making something big out of something little. I like the way he sculpts the energy of the movement. I like hearing rich chromaticism as an embellishment of tall harmonies. So, I analyzed the movement, made notes about the aspects I wanted to emulate, and all of the sudden a path forward opened up.

Initially, I felt a little sheepish for deriving so much information and inspiration from Ravel. But yesterday morning, I was listening to the Sequentia recording of Hildegarde von Bingen’s “Ave Maria, O Auctrix Vite” while editing a choral score and it hit me: hey, wait!, that’s the central melody of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body.” (Of course, he discloses as much in his program notes, which I read today.) So, maybe there’s nothing totally new in music, anyway.

Raveling? Unraveling? One way or the other, here we go!