As I lay on my living room floor last weekend, surrounded by piles (and I do mean piles) of score paper and printed Finale pages, deciding the final details of a new piece for flute, clarinet, electric guitar, piano and double bass, I flashed on a comment made long ago by one of my graduate school composition teachers:
You know, I really think you could change the world with electronic music. But you should stop writing for acoustic instruments.
Upon seeing what was probably a look of total surprise and/or bewilderment on my face—because my entire reason for attending graduate school was to bring my instrumental writing up to the level of my electronic composition skills and then run with the two—he quickly backtracked to say, “Well, I mean, of course you could still write for acoustic instruments. . .it would just take longer for you to become really proficient at it.”
Coming from a luminary of electronic music, this was—sort of—a massive compliment. Who wouldn’t want to change the world?? But would I really have to give up writing instrumental music in order to make that happen?! I took his statement seriously, and thought very, very hard about it. Ultimately, I continued on my own merry way, doing exactly what I had planned to do.
In retrospect, I see where he was coming from, and to be perfectly honest, he wasn’t wrong. At that time, I found writing for instruments really difficult—I would get snarled up in notation, not always write idiomatically for the instrument in question, torture myself over the smallest decisions. Making electronic music was faster, easier, and I dealt with that language fluently. He was also speaking through the filter of his own experience (which is all anyone can really do), and thinking about the “traditional composer trajectory,” which involves doing x, y, and z by the time one hits 30 years old, and so on. By those standards, I was running a little behind schedule.
It did indeed take a few more years to become comfortable writing music for acoustic instruments. It was a struggle and sometimes the process was incredibly frustrating, but it happened, and I continue learning and trying to get better at composing in whatever medium is called for every day. As a result, I am incredibly fortunate to have had so many experiences (and performances!) that never would have happened had I taken that different path, not to mention that a number of the musicians with whom I have had the pleasure to work over the years are among my greatest friends. I would not trade that for anything.
Even though I may have had to go the long way to get where I am today, the day that an audience member came up after a performance and said, “You know, normally I don’t care for contemporary music, but what I just heard was really cool! I think I’m going to keep trying this stuff!” made me realize that “changing the world” is not about the tools—it’s about the music, in whatever form it needs to come.