We composers and teachers of composition do well to understand ourselves as trouveres. "Trouvere" is one of the oldest words for "composer" and I think, at its root, it tells us more about what we do than our word "composer."
The newer word "composer" tends to wash over us as simply meaning someone who writes music. We add to that whatever mental images or baggage our individual knowledge of composers brings along with it.
However, the word "composer" actually has layers suggesting one who arranges things into a whole. That already speaks much more of the real composing process. We are almost always assembling and organizing. That's what our creating involves. We never make something from nothing and the most exalted composers in the classical tradition - Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven - never seem to have created so much as a new chord. Instead, their monumental compositional efforts consisted of profoundly moving, ingenious new applications of what they inherited.
"Trouvering" (my word), on the other hand, addresses something even more fundamental. It references an earlier phase in the compositional process or at least a more basic disposition of those who excel at the discipline of composition. The etymology of "trouvere" involves an Old French word which also means "to find."
To me, this information is very liberating. It is also very grounding. It cuts through all of the romanticizing, all of the agendas and personalities, and all of the hyping accretions that paralyze us when we start down a creative path. Behind their studio doors, composers are trying to find things: arresting sounds, fresh juxtapositions, compelling lines . . . They are all there to be found, and we're looking for them.
Until you realize you are on such a search, the process can be frustrating, to say the least. Imagine a toddler alone on the edge of a great wood. This little one has no concept of path or thicket, clearing or stream, let alone county line or the ocean beyond all of it. The grasp and ability to differentiate are not yet developed enough even to be overwhelmed. Instead, there is a nebulous lost-ness and probably a panic if a trusted hand is not felt soon.
The beginning composer might be good at finding things intuitively or at least at knowing where things are in the immediate setting. Another might have a knack for grasping big shapes but have no sense of how to fill them. Whatever the case, there must always be work for the teacher of composing to do along the lines of trouvering. The student simply hasn't spent the time on these paths that the teacher has. And so the teacher can move the process along for the student by pointing out possible ways forward. Then, the student can respond, "That's what I was looking for." or, "No, that's not quite what I'm hearing on the inside."
As I was looking around for things at the keyboard last night (improvising), I caught myself in that same old unhelpful and unrealistic dialog against which I am constantly campaigning in the lives of others. My fingers found their way over some bi-tonal things that were reminiscent of Prokofiev. "Ah!" I thought, "I could write something using those sorts of sounds." And then I said the following to myself, but I didn't put it into words until now. It was more of a feeling. If I had "languaged" it, I would have immediately realized how stupidly I was short-circuiting my own creative process. "But the music in which the mature Prokofiev uses these materials is so much better than what I can imagine myself making up off-the-cuff that there's really no point for me to even try to compose."
Obviously, I need to remember that I'm a trouvere and a composer. Keeping that perspective allows me to enjoy the processes of seeking, finding, and arranging into a whole.