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The Ten “Perfect” Pieces

Grad school: composition seminar. This was a chance to talk shop with your fellow student composers, led by a member of the composition faculty at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, where we were diligently working towards the completion of our various degrees. We met once a week to examine the big picture; discuss new pieces, contemporary techniques, and/or what life might be like in the real world. I still remember the day where one of my peers brought in a recording with some strange, repetitive music, by a somewhat unknown east coat guy (at least to us) named Phillip Glass. He reported that this new radical style was called “minimalism……”

Generally the course was fun; there was not a lot of prep time devoted to the cause, as we had plenty to do on other fronts. The only other thing in our lives that was more informal was our Thursday night “sabbaticals.” (Translation: meet at Uncle Woody’s at 9 for a beer……..)

My teacher, Scott Huston (or “Doc” as we affectionately called him,) took the reigns when it was his turn for the upcoming quarter. He had a pet topic that he inflicted on us every once in a while, especially when there was new blood in the room. “I want you to go out and come back next week with a list of your ten “perfect” pieces. Be prepared to share your list and defend your choices.”

Sounded like fun to me. Doc provided a single criteria to consider in making our list. The perfect piece was one that was so masterfully written that absolutely nothing could be changed. Alter as much as a single pitch in the score and there would be “diminishment…….”

No one needed to wave a red flag in front of us; we were only too happy to pontificate on behalf of our shared musical culture, which was decidedly pro-Western at the time.

Wednesday afternoon came; all of us walked in with our lists; eager to show off our knowledge and sophistication. Doc was waiting in ambush……the first grad composer began reeling off his list, which included the Wagner Ring Cycle. Not one particular opera from the cycle of four, or even a given act. The entire Ring cycle.

“Nonsense!” was my teacher’s reply.

Other people produced additional examples of major works from the repertoire, symphonies, chamber works, etc. “No way!” was Doc’s increasingly heated response.

So what was the common issue here? Length. “The longer the piece is, the more opportunities there are to screw up!” bellowed our teacher. Hmm, had to think about this one. I knew that I could already make signification compositional errors in 6 measures or less, based on my understanding of the craft at the time. Only stands to reason that a longer piece would extend my woes.

Yes, I did share my discoveries in class. Doc was somewhat surprised when I suggested The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, an early, significant opera by Kurt Weill, who was rapidly becoming one of my heroes, but ultimately, my fate was no different than the others when it came to Doc’s judgment.

The afternoon went on like this, student after student. Just about all of our nominations bit the dust as our teacher explained how such the suggested work was not conducive to a list of perfect pieces. Then he asked the most embarrassing killer question of all:

“How many of your ten pieces have you thoroughly analyzed? Measure by measure?”

There was silence in the room. Of course we hadn’t done that. Don’t have the time. Should we? I guess we already knew the answer to that one. Maybe our list needs to consist of shorter, more concise pieces. I noted that Doc’s own list of perfect works had quite a few. (Ex. Tu Pauperum refugium, by Josquin Des Prez. This is a choral motet, the second part of a longer work. The first half of the motet didn’t make the list….. The piece is absolutely gorgeous; you couldn’t possibly alter anything without bringing it down a peg or three. Fortunately, Scott would make us analyze that one, measure my measure, beat by beat, in his Analytic Techniques course. He forced us to live the ideal, whether we wanted to or not.

Do your homework; make the effort. Take the time; learn from your betters. You owe it to yourself and the music you will one day write more effectively because you spent significant time in this fashion.

It was a tough lesson that day, but I never forgot the class. Theory seminars and other grad courses helped me to achieve a portion of this goal. I developed a basic repertoire of pieces that I can now say changed my life. But the learning never stops; I still need to study new works, especially when I am writing in a medium for which I have no previous compositional experience. It is still hard to find the time, but somehow, you just have to.

And now, more than 30 years after that class, what are my 10 perfect pieces? What are the ten “landmark” musical works of all time, the ones that you should listen to at least twice a week? This is still a fun question, but also a ridiculous one. Perfection is impossible; don’t waste your time. Write the best piece you can; come back to it now and again and make it even better. Technology makes this so easy. But enough is enough; when you have beaten the piece into the ground with your efforts to improve, move on. Learn from the mistakes that were made and try not to repeat them in the next project.

So I won’t end this article with a list of my ten “perfect” pieces. My next offering may offer a list of 10 pieces that made a difference for me as a musician/composer, or something like that. I’ll have fun deciding why these pieces changed my life. My list will be different from yours, which is the entire point; we should also agree to shy away from talk of perfection, however. I still don’t have time to employ the measure by measure test very often, but I will have lived with these pieces for quite some time. Let’s agree to check our lists again in five to ten years and we will see how much they have changed.

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