If you've ever been in the same room as a composer who's working at a piano you'll be familiar with the concept of aural torture. The other week, I spent well over an hour pounding out tonic and dominant chords in just one key, C major, without any significant variation in rhythm or volume (loud). Luckily, I was the only person within earshot or I've no doubt that I would have been "silenced" by whatever means necessary at about the twenty-minute mark. And rightly so. There's no acceptable excuse for such obsessive, self-absorbed behaviour. Unfortunately, it's a vital part of my creative process.
The American composer John Adams once said that every generative musical idea he had ever had he had whilst improvising at a piano. Composers differ on this point, some don't even touch a musical instrument when they're composing, but personally I couldn't agree more with Adams. The unfortunate thing for those unlucky enough to bear witness to my creative process (my wife and cats, mainly) is that the music can take a long time to form and take shape in my imagination. Which means that I can sit at a piano for hours playing the same two or three chords over and over, making infinitesimal changes to the attack, dynamics and harmony each time.
And the effect from my point of view at the piano is all-embracing, my entire consciousness if focused on this single musical colour, reality fades from view. To an onlooker, on the other hand, it must look like a pigeon pecking endlessly at an empty crisp packet, trying to extract a crumb from it.
But why is it so slow? The truth is, I'm not sure. But I think it has something to do with the impermanence of musical ideas in my aural imagination. Musical ideas, chords, fragments of melody take a long time to bed themselves in to the sound world I'm struggling to create. The consolation, I hope, is that the thoroughness of this approach shows in the finished work. Every note you will hear (or sing) at the premiere will have had to justify its existence thousands of times before it is even committed to the page. Just pity my neighbours.