Boldly Going

I’m now wrapping up one piece and moving on to the next. This is an intimidating moment–I’m leaving a project that I know well and embarking on one whose true nature I have yet to discover. But as I entered the last phases of composition on that recently finished piece, I arrived at a startling realization: The terra of the last year or two hasn’t been as incognita as I’d thought at the time. Although it invariably seems to me that each new piece presents entirely new territory to explore and map, retrospect makes it clear that I’ve been seeing a lot of the same landmarks again and again.

I’ve been fortunate throughout the past couple of years to get to know and work with a number of composers born in the 1970s, figures whom I can sort of look up to as older artistic siblings and cousins. They’ve got a few more years of experience under their belts, but they’re fundamentally of my generation. This family of musical role models has been as important to my development as the rogue’s gallery of teachers with whom I’ve taken formal study in composition. It’s been especially encouraging to witness the gradual process by which some of these emerging composers have drawn a perimeter around their work, so to speak–catalogues that might have seemed promising but inconsistent a few years ago (a description that’s about the most charitable one you could bestow on my own music at this point) are now robust projections of their creators’ cultural and aesthetic concerns.

They’ve been able to accomplish this transformation, by and large, without beating the dead horses of years past. Mendel-like, they isolated and cultivated those traits manifest in their music that got to the heart of. . . of themselves, I guess. But they haven’t stagnated, and they haven’t stopped thinking critically about what they do. There are things that happen in all of the last four or five pieces I’ve written, and although I like these things very much, I worry that I’m shoehorning myself into a caricature of the composer I ought to be. Have I given up the ghost of genuine self-reflection with decades of composing (I hope) still on the clock? Like the role models I mentioned earlier, I’m drawing a perimeter around my music, but it’s much smaller perimeter than I thought I’d be working within. Maybe this is another word for “style”–but maybe it’s also another word for “thoughtless,” “complacent,” or “fascinated by materials that are not actually interesting.” It’s gratifying to know that my music is increasingly “on-message,” in the political parlance of our day; however, “asserting myself” more and more consistently in each piece begs the questions of what I am really asserting after all and whether it’s something that I really stand behind. Perhaps my music is composing me rather than the other way around.

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