Tuesday, May 20, 2014
From the Composer's Hermitage
1. Composing is a discipline, just like practicing or performing. You don't really know and understand about it until you are regularly working at it. Also, the dynamics of the process can be forgotten rather quickly during a hiatus from daily composing work.
2. Thinking you're writing for posterity or comparing you work with the great music you already know while you're trying to write it is a fast track to writer's block.
3. Sometimes, you need to write a lot of a thing to get it out of your system and move on to some stuff you might think is better.
4. Instead of trying to compete with Beethoven's finished works in one's sketches (!) think of your work as student work or experimentation. Explore lots of ways of generating material to keep from getting locked up: set a text, improvise, choose an existing model for some aspect of your work . . .
5. What you really need is a very clear assignment. Sometimes, you get stuck because the assignment you have given yourself isn't detailed enough.
6. And there is that stage in composing during which you feel like you're just spinning your wheels. This might happen with every work you write. There are minutes, hours, days, etc., when it seems like you've wasted your time, that nothing of worth has come out. For someone who isn't regularly involved in the discipline, this can be very discouraging.
How should you deal with this wheel-spinning time?
A. Know it's normal.
B. Have composer friends who can let you know it's normal.
C. Be a trouvere. That's an old word for "composer" that comes from the same root as the modern French verb for "to find." The point is that composing is a search in sonic and spiritual realms which usually involves some wandering and some groping about.
D. Know that those tedious times might be more than just a hassle to endure. They appear to be necessary for actual productivity. As John Cage put it, "the way to get ideas is to do something boring. For instance, composing in such a way that the process of composing is boring induces ideas. They fly into one's head like birds."
7. Think like even more of a genius than you are. Notice, for example that Beethoven edited his pretty rudimentary materials into greatness. You, too, should try editing. Also, particularly important for developing well-rounded complete works is thinking like Mozart, Hindemith, or Britten: have a vision of the whole. Carry it with you away from your usual composing station. Develop the habit of recognizing and moving along the continuum between your big ideas and actual notes on the page.
9. There's a wonderful moment when you have passed through the basic discovery of materials, the tedium, and the conceiving of the overall structure. In that moment, you finally see the big picture and have filled in enough details to know how the rest of the work is to be composed. And you know how to do it! That's the climax. From there on in, it's smooth sailing. After you have a few pieces under your belt, you actually develop an appetite for the work that gets you to that vantage point. I think it's then that you realize you really are a composer.
10. Finally, a word on inspiration. Some of the greatest composers have prayed for it. I have, at times, too. That prayer is a challenge and involves a bit of trepidation. It requires trusting that God will provide something through the process and suggests that you would dare try to intermingle your conscious human efforts with some mysterious mission above your own. Doing the work of composing as a follow-up to that prayer is a blessing that can build your faith.