Time Pressure: The Challenges of Composing

Greetings MIE community! Much progressed has occurred since my first blog post. One month ago, the Music-In-Education department hosted our first ever concert, which featured my composition, Lucena Position for Six Musicians and Two Chess Players. The name is a bit of a misnomer, actually—we only had one chess player, playing both sides of the board for this performance. Still, the piece was a tremendous success!

Everyone who participated in it ended up learning about the Lucena Position, an important type of rook-and-pawn endgame that every great chess player needs to know about. By crafting the piece around this “textbook endgame study,” anyone who learned the piece had to first absorb the key concepts of the Lucena position: how to build a bridge with the rook to block a barrage of enemy checks and allow an otherwise blocked pawn to promote. Then, after the rooks are traded off, the pawn promotes to a queen and the remainder of the game is a classic king-and-queen checkmating pattern.

Moreover, the audience got a new experience with the game, and hopefully learned something too! By adding a sonic element, audience members who might not know the rules of chess got a better picture of when something interesting happened—e.g. a check, a piece being threatened, or a queen promoting. Still, my “artist persona” was only partially satisfied: the music still seems a bit heavy-handed, perhaps programmatic. This came to light more prominently when, just a few days ago, I was informed that I would not be asked to perform a second version of the piece on Jordan Hall stage for the “Beckett Play” concert.

Part of that was my bad planning (I didn’t get a rehearsal together so the curator of the show could see the idea in time), but there’s a more deeply rooted issue: Sam Beckett would not agree with the core musical structure! As a playwright, Beckett spent much of his career attempting to destroy narrative, to systematically remove conventional plot devices from his works and achieve a new aesthetic. My current system is inherently programmatic and narrative, which makes it a poor fit for the Beckett concert.

Consequently, my attention now turns to preparing for my recital. I have effectively “doubled down” with this project: not only does it require success as a teacher and chess player in order to pull off each concert, but additionally it requires that I compose a great piece of music! As I write this I have just three weeks to put the last piece together for my recital. I will have to drastically reduce the scale of my compositional ambitions in order to accommodate the realities of my timeline: I want a piece on my recital that sounds good, in addition to the educational content and lesson plans that go into making the piece happen.

One technique I intend to explore further as I extend this interdisciplinary teaching concept after graduation (not sure how or where yet, but I’ll find a way) is the idea of group composition through guided inquiry. By asking students (in this case, members of the NEC Chess Club) to explore core concepts in chess, I can make use of the bi-literacy and start asking questions. For example: “what is the effect of capturing a piece during a game? How might that be represented musically?” This format of question can be reused for each and every lesson plan: piece movement, the squares of the board, pawn promotion, check, checkmate, castling, elementary checkmates (Q+R vs. K, K + Q vs. K, K + R vs. K, etc.), opening theory, elementary tactics (forks, pins, skewers, discovered attacks, etc.), endgame studies like the Lucena Position, and so on.

The real challenge for me as an artist is sufficiently limiting the scope of each composition! Chess is nearly as rich and imaginative of an art form as music, so any attempt to map concepts from its domain into the world of sound will have inherent limitations. As a composer and fellow student helpfully suggested, “be careful not to put too much heart into each piece… remember you can always write another. Cut excess like a samurai.”

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