Composers at Play

Last week in this space, I argued that every aspect of composers’ lives should be considered work because we bring all of our experiences to bear when creating new pieces. While I believe this to be true, I also believe that in order to live a balanced life we should allow room for play.

A few weeks ago, Alexandra Gardner introduced us to the creative triangle of “good, cheap, fast,” which functions as a limiting factor for every project if we agree that only two of the three goals are possible at a single time. In a society where the arts consistently are forced to function within limited financial resources, we generally find ourselves attempting to create beautiful art at a breakneck pace. We jump from project to project without the luxury of time to step back and think, time to re-assess our basic assumptions. In short, we deny ourselves opportunity for play.

I believe that playtime constitutes an essential part of the creative process. The time we spend pursuing other interests takes us out of our myopic daily grind and allows us to return to old problems with new solutions. As deadline after deadline approaches, sometimes we forget the rejuvenation that we can derive from a full rest day. Personally, I find that my work often proceeds much more quickly when I force myself to step away from all of my projects and take the opportunity to loll indolently, even when this idleness can only be afforded for a few hours. It’s important to set aside our Puritanical guilt when we attempt to relax and to thoroughly enjoy those periods when we move away from our work concerns and concentrate on our mental health. Our musical ideas will still percolate as we focus on silly movies, or hikes, or sudoku puzzles, or novels, or playing our instruments.

In addition, most of my favorite contemporary composers utilize aspects of play in their own works. For me, what sets Berio and Ligeti apart from many of their contemporaries is how often they appear to take delight in musical ideas and how their works are able to combine humor with depth. Of David Rakowski’s 100 Etudes, for me Schnozzage remains the one that stands above the rest. Go ahead and watch the video of Amy Briggs performing this work. Pretty funny, right? As she stabs the notes with her nose, her head jerks in an amusing motion. I’ve probably seen this 100 times by now and it’s still funny. Okay, now go back to the video and listen without watching. Put the sound through some good speakers and step away from your computer. When watching, the delightful humor occupied your brain and you probably didn’t realize how beautiful the sonorities are at the beginning or how the nose creates a simple melody that’s separated registrally from the incredibly widely spaced chords. Here, the humor welcomes us into the piece and then the constraints required by the joke (the nose can only play white keys) force the composer into compositional choices that create a simpler sound world than his usual pieces while also creating the possibility of registral spacing hitherto unexplored in piano music. In short, the element of play leads to an utterly original and beautiful composition.

In the immortal words of Jack Torrance, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

One thought on “Composers at Play

  1. jeidson

    It’s important to set aside our Puritanical guilt when we attempt to relax

    This is perhaps the hardest thing for me to do – that is, to do nothing and not feel guilty about idleness. Benjamin Hoff talks about the Bisy Backson in The Tao of Pooh, which is essentially people who are always busy and go through life constantly working. It’s part of the blessing and curse as a composer, I suppose, and I am constantly trying to balance work and “not work” time.

    Great read, David – thank you for the reminder that it is sometimes okay to do nothing at all!

    -Joseph Eidson

    Reply

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