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It's an interesting question to be sure. When do you drop the quill and ink (err... I mean mouse and keyboard) and declare finito!?

When you've finished your "final" version?

When you feel "satisfied" with it?

When your cat stops meowing and sleeps during the music?

When your peers at Composers' Forum shower you with praise?

Isn't there always something else you can add or revise?

Personally, I agree with Leonardo:

No work of art is ever finished; only abandoned - Da Vinci

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Most music I write completes in a finite set of time (usually my short works resolve in a matter of a few days, it can be months or more for longer works). If a piece does not seem to be working or is stuck in a blind alley, it eventually goes on the dust pile of never-to-be-completed. Once I've put something down I almost never go back. I also almost never revisit a completely finished work, I feel that's like living in the past. This is just where I am now and could change someday.

Yea, when you've made a recording, It should be finished. But with today's world of MIDI I can end up wanting to keep on adding more when really I could be taking away. There are almost too many options when working with vast sample libraries such as those available on ableton etc

Perhaps Da Vinci was correct when he said,

"No work of art is ever finished; only abandoned."

However, these statements by Beethoven may also shed light on the question:

Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.
-- Ludwig van Beethoven, quoted by Bettina von Arnin, letter to Goethe, 1810

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit.
-- Ludwig van Beethoven, quoted in Marion M Scott, Beethoven (1934)

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I am suggesting that perhaps, we are not composing the music. The music composes us.

The "composition is 'finished' " only when we are fully composed.

Thanks Gav, but you didn't really answer the question. You just changed the word to complete. How do you decide when one of your works is complete? 

Gav Brown said:

Most music I write completes in a finite set of time (usually my short works resolve in a matter of a few days, it can be months or more for longer works). If a piece does not seem to be working or is stuck in a blind alley, it eventually goes on the dust pile of never-to-be-completed. Once I've put something down I almost never go back. I also almost never revisit a completely finished work, I feel that's like living in the past. This is just where I am now and could change someday.

Thanks Chris. Good answer. This is close to the essence of what Da Vinci was saying.

Deadlines can dictate submission in some cases but this is different from feeling it's finished.

Chris Burridge said:

Hi jeff!

i would also agree that any artistic work is never finished. As a personal example, if i have a submission for my composition module in university then i will reach a point where i am satisfied with the work, where it might be considered "finished". This could be the first, third, ninth draft of a composition, however long it takes me to reach a stage where i consider it a complete work. However, in my case once a work is submitted i will go back and tweak things further, and then again at a later date if i decide it needs "renovating".

I suppose in some ways, there is no "final work", just however many versions or renovations you get round to creating.

Haha. That is a different matter Saul. That is when it is commercially available. It may or may not be "finished" in the composer's mind or draftbook.

Saul Dzorelashvili said:

Technically when there is a recording of it available in a music store near you....

Yes. This definitely complicates the matter for modern-day composers. It's just too easy to make changes and hear them. It promotes mediocrity.

Charlie McCord said:

Yea, when you've made a recording, It should be finished. But with today's world of MIDI I can end up wanting to keep on adding more when really I could be taking away. There are almost too many options when working with vast sample libraries such as those available on ableton etc

"I am suggesting that perhaps, we are not composing the music. The music composes us.

The "composition is 'finished' " only when we are fully composed."

Interesting, but it doesn't really get us anywhere. It's like saying, "the circle is only finished when it starts."

In my opinion, Beethoven is making a philosophical statement about the meaning of music not the process of creation.

Ondib Olmnilnlolm said:

Perhaps Da Vinci was correct when he said,

"No work of art is ever finished; only abandoned."

However, these statements by Beethoven may also shed light on the question:

Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.
-- Ludwig van Beethoven, quoted by Bettina von Arnin, letter to Goethe, 1810

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit.
-- Ludwig van Beethoven, quoted in Marion M Scott, Beethoven (1934)

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When another composition comes to my mind, which is more interesting to finish.

When I feel right about it, I guess!

Jeff Brien said:

Thanks Gav, but you didn't really answer the question. You just changed the word to complete. How do you decide when one of your works is complete? 

Gav Brown said:

Most music I write completes in a finite set of time (usually my short works resolve in a matter of a few days, it can be months or more for longer works). If a piece does not seem to be working or is stuck in a blind alley, it eventually goes on the dust pile of never-to-be-completed. Once I've put something down I almost never go back. I also almost never revisit a completely finished work, I feel that's like living in the past. This is just where I am now and could change someday.



Andrew Gleibman said:

When another composition comes to my mind, which is more interesting to finish.

Andrew's is a good answer, and often it is true.  However, sometimes a new piece is started, as I move to get some distance from the previous work, and then I return fresh to the first one.

Regarding the quote --No work of art is ever finished; only abandoned -- I didn't see it  as negative, though the word "abandoned" seems to have a bad connotation here, is if we are talking about an abandoned child.  I saw the DaVince quote as allowing the work of art to have its own existence, apart from the self, as if it had "grown up."

" True art has a mind of its own," Beethoven wrote in 1820.

Thank you, Jeff, for your response to my post.

I was ‘suggesting that, perhaps, we are not composing the music. The music composes us. The "composition is 'finished' " only when we are fully composed."’

You replied by saying,

‘Interesting, but it doesn't really get us anywhere. It's like saying, "the circle is only finished when it starts."’

I think the circle analogy is interesting. You know a circle is successfully drawn when you come all the way back to the beginning, and see how each part of the drawn figure exists in relation to every other part. But that is not what I meant. A circle has a fixed form, with mathematically defined parameters that do not vary. The only thing that can vary in a circle is its size. A musical composition, on the other hand, appears to have an infinite number of potential forms, hence the difficulty of the question you are asking, “when is a composition finished.”

You added,

“In my opinion, Beethoven is making a philosophical statement about the meaning of music not the process of creation.”

I think we must have some notion of what music means generally, philosophically speaking-- and an idea of what the piece of the music we are writing MEANS-- in order to reflect at all on the process of creation.

So, consider again Beethoven’s statement to Goethe:

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend . . .”

Beethoven is conceiving of the “higher world of knowledge,” in which the composition process occurs, as a world in which normal modes of comprehending (the ordinary thoughts we have about beginnings and endings) do not apply. It’s not as if we are asking the question, “when do we know that a meal is properly prepared and finished, and ready for consumption?” As Socrates, says, cookery is a form of flattery to the senses, and not something that addresses the soul. (He has something similar to say also, about “flute-playing,” when it is done merely to satisfy a popular taste). So, even though music relies on our physical sense of hearing, it is not limited to satisfying that aspect of the self. It can achieve contact with the “intellect,” in the highest sense of the word, or even the soul.

If we understand music this way, as Socrates did, as Beethoven did, then we can make more sense of the statement, “Music composes us,” as opposed to the statement, “we compose the music.” A piece of music “composes us,” because something happens during the process of composition which cannot be placed under the rubric of ordinary daily thinking. It’s not something we are “doing,” like washing the dishes, cleaning our laundry, or filling out a tax form, where beginnings and endings are fairly obvious. Instead, when we compose we are not doing any specific thing by ourselves that is a concrete definable task.

We are in the realm, Beethoven says, “which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend,” and accordingly, a composer must allow himself to be guided by, or to act in tandem with the “incomprehensible.” A composer must trust and have confidence in this “incomprehensible” aspect of reality. It is only when this trust is achieved that one can find the moment, in which he or she KNOWS the composition is complete, KNOWS THAT IT IS FINISHED. We may also have the feeling that the “incomprehensible” is finished with us, and with the composition, in a way which is satisfying and fulfilling. All other considerations, regarding melody, harmony, and orchestration, or regarding meter, tempo, and tuning are tangential. Nothing having to do with the physical recording of the work, or artificially imposed deadlines, or the venue of presentation is really relevant in the final analysis.

This is true if we regard music as an art, and not as something highly deformed or distorted by any commercial consideration or consumerist imperative.

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