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Finishing the Unfinished
Tuesday, April 23, 2024 | Shi-An Costello



-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1952), the last word of Lucky's monologue


My life as a husband, father, composer, pianist, and writer often feels like an endless series of chaotic and unrelated events. From my public life in artistic performance, to my private life in artistic creation, to my personal life with friends and family, my life is endlessly generative. It is both exhilarating and exhausting. My work as an artist allows me to make some sense out of my life's material chaos. The process of making art does this for me because, to me, art is the capturing, reordering, and if ultimately successful, the framing of the chaos of life into something worth saving. My artistic creations allow me the opportunity to reframe my additive universe of experiences.

People are endlessly generative, creating more and more material through the entirety of their lives. Be it words, notes, gestures, sounds, or brush strokes. A unique quality of art is that we can create a thing that lasts long past our own brief lives. To find and record the final thing, whatever that thing might be, is to make a frame, literal or figurative, around a small portion of the untamable force of human creation. 




Exploring forms that are nearly formless, undergoing continuous shifts and mutations, is my way of building structure on purposefully nebulous ground. Claude Debussy and Morton Feldman do this particularly well, albeit in different ways. Debussy tends to build messy, imaginative worlds around a single visual image. These worlds include natural phenomena, vague plots, actions or reactions from abstract characters, and raw human emotions that correspond to the image, building form where there is none. While any individual can make a narrative to explain Debussy's work, the work on its own intentionally fails to answer the simplest questions. Debussy's uninterest in communicating an image with clarity allows his work to more accurately capture the essence of the image in the most relatable terms. Morton Feldman’s music does something similar in the sense of building a composition through a single image or idea, but with even less literal reference to the image than Debussy. A great example of this is his work for cello and piano, Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981). In this work, Feldman develops a texture of clusters in odd rhythmic groupings in the extreme high and lows extremes of the piano, while the cello plays a dizzying combination of notes separated by the smallest of intervals: literally, patterns in a chromatic field. This idea continues to develop for the next 1.5 hours of uninterrupted music.

Two works I recently composed for solo piano found their final form through this type of image-based impetus: Reappearance (2021) and the orient (2023). In Reappearance, I used the image of Marcel Proust on his deathbed, attempting, and ultimately failing, to complete his decades long book series, In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927). The more Proust worked on his story, the more the story progressed, resulting in more character development, more pivotal moments, more plot twists.  The story became all the more impossible to finish. This (potentially true) scenario for the final days of Proust's life gave me the inspiration for Reappearance. The other recent work, the orient, takes as a starting point the notion that the Orient is an imaginary place. Even the Occident, defined in opposition to the Orient, is imaginary. The piece attempts to capture the essence of a place that doesn't actually exist in an effort to better understand the meaning of place itself. The focus on a nebulously defined place helped free my thinking and unlocked the generation of musical material as I built my personal reflection(and a structure for that reflection) on the idea of place, and my own racial and ethnic identity in the orient.




In order to solve the problem of resolving a piece's conflict, I often look to musical models that exhaustively repeat small melodic and rhythmic patterns in an always evolving context. Examples of this type of writing include Frederic Chopin’s Etude in Ab major, Op. 10, No. 10, the music of Viet Cuong, and Steve Reich and other American Minimalists. The creation of material in this way allows for the form to be naturally self-determined, as the music unravels for as long as the spool has thread. The unraveling of musical material progresses steadily towards its natural conclusion allowing for a sustained interest that casts fresh perspectives on the piece's singular focus.

My recent works that use this type of repetition are Mass (2023) and the memory of remembering (2021). In Mass, I created a series of transcriptions for the four main tones of the Mandarin language: flat, rise, fall-rise, and fall. These four basic parts create a system inside which the music can simply exist for while, rather than an active narrative that progresses through a beginning, middle and end. In the memory of remembering, every note of every chord in Frederic Chopin's Prelude, Op. 28, No. 24, can be played in order, as many times as you like. This means the piece can last anywhere from 3 minutes to an entire evening. the memory of remembering has no real conflict, nor does it need a resolution, because the content of the piece is simply an expansion through open repetition of the individual objects that have been placed there by Chopin. In simple terms, the piece is a prompt for building textures through repeated notes. The music at the beginning is the music of the ending in reverse, highlighting the lack of conventional progress across the entire scope of the piece. The piece is less about a beginning, middle and end, emphasizing instead that the lines between all three formal sections don't need to be defined, or perhaps don't even exist.




Another formal idea that I have come to gravitate towards in my own music is the process of deterioration as a way to solve the problem of creating a climax. Traditionally, in music, a climax takes place somewhere between two-thirds through and close to the end, and on occasion, at the very end of a piece. In conversation, Morton Feldman once acknowledged that historically, the climax was considered the big finale movement, like in George Frideric Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" in The Messiah, or in Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" in the Ninth Symphony. Many composers and theorists later started to believe that the middle movement, while typically slow and quiet, was the real emotional climax of a piece, like in the 18th Variation of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme from Paganini. Feldman asserts that the notion of the climax will keep progressing to an earlier and earlier point in the composition, until we start recognizing the climax to be the composition's very first sound. Or perhaps music doesn’t need a climax at all. Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room (1981) is an example of how the deterioration of a piece's very first sound can constitute the entire structure of the work, with no limit to how expansive the work can become.

Two of my works build large scale forms out of a deteriorating climactic first sound. Accord (2012) and diminishing 5ths (2022) are separated by 10 years but address the same topic: the tuning of open strings on a violin or cello. It has always fascinated me that string players have to allow the maintenance-required task of tuning their instrument to be the very first sounds they produce in each and every live performance. If Feldman is right, then the real climax of the performance might just be the tuning of the instrument “before” the performance. Perhaps, it is a silly idea, and perhaps Feldman was joking, but nonetheless, I used this imaginative definition of climax-in-music to help me write Accord and diminishing 5ths, and in broader terms, it freed me to question the truest placement of a climax in a musical form, and ask whether or not there should be one at all. Both Accord and diminishing 5ths start with the tuning of the instrumental forces of each work: violin and piano, and violin and cello. In both works, the entire form and process is an unraveling commentary on the simple, banal, forgettable, but potentially climactic gesture of initially tuning one's instrument for performance. Like I Am Sitting In A Room, the longer they progress, the more free-from-climax they become.

It doesn’t always work out. There are instances of failure, and even worse than failing, the fear of failing. A common pitfall for me is to prematurely create the frame for a work before really knowing what the work will come to be. As I work on the piece doomed to fail, my premature framing will inevitably drift away from what the work is becoming. The growing disparity between my work’s frame, and the work itself, may cause me, in panic, to strip the work of its essence in a desperate attempt to make the work evolve the way I want it to. This almost always ends in a failure. A premature framing can suffocate the piece’s natural development and leave me empty handed.

A philosophical premise that can usually save me from failure is the basis for the title of this article: that in order to finish a piece of art, you must finish the unfinished. That is to say, you must tame life's chaos into a thing you arbitrarily deem complete, while knowing deep down that you, and the art, will never be complete. This idea should empower you to create, arming you against the many obstacles of the artistic process. If you truly believe that you and your work can never be complete, then the pressure to finish, and the fear of failure, tends to disappear. There are so many ideas in this article that I haven’t finished understanding and my explanations of these ideas are far from final, but nonetheless, we are reaching the conclusion of this work, and I’m nonetheless pleased that this completed work can have a life that extends past the moment in which it was created.

In the quote that opens this essay, the word "unfinished" concludes Lucky's bizarre and chaotic tangent that seems to stretch on endlessly with no conceivable end in sight. The monologue ends only when the group collectively decides to forcibly remove Lucky's “thinking cap,” a hat that gave Lucky the ability to speak. The monologue could have extended far beyond the removal of the cap: words and sounds extend far beyond the piece within which they reside. This small but important moment in Beckett's Waiting for Godot offers some wisdom for creating art. If Beckett had attempted to harvest a grammatically clean and comprehensible monologue with clear landmarks for a beginning, middle and end out of the psyche of Lucky, he would have done the play a disservice. Instead, Beckett let Lucky speak his own mind, and as a creative artist, simply stayed out of his own character's way until the right moment came to create a border and deem the monologue complete. No matter the myriad of compositional tools at the artist's disposal, no matter the numerous inspirations and influences that help guide an artist's work, Beckett shows us, with Lucky's monologue, that one of the most important things an artist can do is to let the work become what it must, decide when it should be given the final framing, and henceforth declare the work (un)finished.

The above text was written by Shi-An Costello, a composer, pianist and sound artist based in Chicago, IL.

Editorial support by Emily Doucet. 

Cover Image: a stage adaptation of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre, 2015. Image by Alan McCredie. Sourced via ArtsDesk