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8-Parter Project: Reflections on Process

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All of a sudden I find myself over halfway through the time I set aside for my project to explore arranging in eight parts. In some ways it feels like I have hardly started – it’s not fair that the time should have passed so quickly! – but then I also notice that I have completed 4 arrangements from scratch, reworked an older one, and have a small collection of sketches and part-done trials, at least one of which I intend to return to and finish. So things seem to have been moving.

In the last month of course I have been in a state of almost continual distraction as life has reconfigured itself around a global pandemic. When we stopped going out to do things with other people, we imagined that would give us all extra time to get on with our other projects. But it turns out that having to rethink all your automated habits takes a huge amount of cognitive capacity, never mind the work involved in taking rehearsals online. And the anxiety.

In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that I have continued arranging through all this confusion. And coming up for air between arrangements, it feels like a good moment to make some observations about the experience of the project so far.

The headline discovery is how much longer everything takes when you double the size of the ensemble you habitually write for. This should probably not be a surprise. But within it are some more interesting thoughts about what, exactly, takes the extra time.

Some things are a simple doubling: you have twice the number of parts to notate, to insert lyrics for, sing through for performability and typos. Some things are no longer than usual: transcribing melody and harmony, making decisions about form. Some things feel like they take more than twice as long as usual, such as figuring out the detail of voicings; there may only be twice the number of parts, but you got far more than double the number of relationships between parts.

And of course, initially, you have to think about all of these consciously. The point about embarking on a new project is that you have not yet automated your mental processes. Instead of doing something fluently and intuitively because you’ve done it thousands of times, you have to haul the process out in front of your brain and look at it properly. What, exactly, is the question this music is asking, and how am I going to answer it?

So the thing that really takes the extra time is making all the false starts, and exploring all the blind alleys. Which is of course the fun bit of a new project: you don’t have all the answers, and there is a sense of great creative potential as you survey the field of possibilities and wonder what you are going to do in it. But by the same token, you don’t yet know which of these possibilities are going to turn out to be productive – you just know that some of them will and some of them won’t. It is in backing out of the blind alleys that the learning happens. The definition of learning by experience is, after all: ‘You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.’

That’s why of course I put time aside to treat this as a project, not just another batch of charts. And now I’ve been at it for a while, and have had to confront a whole series of questions of principle and method, I can feel it starting to speed up again. I’m not yet fluent in the way I am with 4-part arranging, but I’m increasingly meeting problems analogous to those I have already solved. I may still have to apply the solution consciously, but I am familiar with enough of the wrong answers to find my way to one of the right ones more efficiently. I’m building my matrix.

And in doing so, I feel both a sense of efficacy as my control over the medium grows and a slightly wistful sense of loss for that feeling of 3 months ago when anything was possible. The cost of skill is the closing-down of your range of choices. I’m not very nostalgic about this when I stop to think about it because I now know that quite a lot of those possibilities were bad ideas that I have tried once and am not intending to inflict on an unsuspecting world. Still, there is a parallel universe somewhere in which I happened across a different set of solutions to those problems and came away with a creative toolkit that from here I now can’t fully imagine.

This is of course the nature of creative work. And it’s one of the reasons why we have different people. The possibilities I have closed off in building my matrix may remain open to you as you explore a different set of blind alleys to build yours. We look at each other’s work and think: oh, I wouldn’t have thought of that! and the universe gets that little bit more interesting.

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