Composing From The Gut: Instinct vs. Practice

I’ve had a few gripping conversations over the past few days about habituation, and specifically about how composers and improvisers deal differently with it—if, that is, it needs to be dealt with at all. As a composer who sometimes improvises (if I’ve ever referred to myself as a large-I “Improviser” in the past, I was wrong), habituation is something I hold in suspicion. If I find that I’m in some kind of compositional auto-pilot “zone,” then the dimensions and boundaries of that zone are going to determine the possibility-space for whatever I write while I’m in it.

Sometimes that’s okay, but I want to make sure I’m aware of those limitations before I forge ahead. Composers are animals, as Keeril Makan once told me, and he couldn’t have been more right: Even the most tirelessly intellectual and self-critical composers I know (and I know some very intellectual and self-critical composers) are animals sometimes, and their successes are often due to the trust they place in instincts they’ve been sharpening for decades—in their habits, that is. Another way to look at it is practice: They’ve been practicing writing music for years, and they bring this practice to bear when they start new pieces.

But most of the habits we start out with aren’t our own, so to speak—they’re habits we learn from our teachers, models, and sometimes even colleagues. Sometimes they emerge from laziness rather than from discipline. It’s easy to laurel people who proclaim that composers should stop fretting about the ramifications of their work and just create more art as bold truth-tellers and paragons of right thinking, but the proposition that we should think less about what we do makes me shudder. You don’t have to kick the tires of your aesthetic worldview every twelve hours, but can anyone say with a straight face that the world needs more thoughtless music? The worst variation on this theme is the suggestion that theorizing is for Europeans; the American way is to write music with a sort of devil-may-care bluffness, to walk softly and carry a big stick. Come on, now: We didn’t put a man on the moon by being thoughtless. The Bill of Rights was not an act of habit.

This matter of habituation concerns me so urgently because after ten years of composing I finally feel like, if I wanted to, I could rely more or less entirely on habit and come up with a convincingly Colin Holter-sounding piece, maybe even a pretty decent one (by Colin Holter-sounding-piece standards). What worries me is, what if that piece is as good as—or better than—a piece I take pains to approach obliquely, without reliance on instinct?

7 thoughts on “Composing From The Gut: Instinct vs. Practice

  1. rtanaka

    I’ve been performing a lot more as of the late, most of them concerts of improvised music. Composition can be up and down sometimes, but improvisation has pretty much always been a positive experience, mostly because I feel like it helps you center yourself in regards to your ideas and gestures.

    I like improv because it forces the musician to take responsibility for the sounds that they make. There’s often a lot of finger-pointing involved when putting on a concert — the composer doesn’t know what they are writing, the performer hasn’t done enough to make the piece work, blah blah — in improv there’s none of that stuff when you’re just there playing from instinct. When playing with other people, it also teaches you the lesson of letting go, when you realize that you really have no control over any person’s actions.

    Lately I’ve been reading a book that makes the argument that scores in themselves may have been rendered obsolete by the recording. I mean, how many people do you know make their living purely out of royalties from publishing? Anyway, something to consider, at least.

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  2. gregrobincomposer

    Instinct/Practice
    I think sometimes we work hard on a piece and it does not work as well as an instinctual one or vice-versa. Instinct is just a ramification of our greater awareness and greater mastery of technique. I find this comforting actually. I can listen to my music and know it is me. I am comfortable with that. I hope, obviously, that it grows and changes. But that said, be happy to know that the technique and composers tools are becoming more internalized. I believe you are now working from your own language.

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  3. ChristopherAdler

    Thank you for bringing this up! Defining a personal trajectory which is about exploration and personal development rather than the perfection of a distinctive compositional voice has been and remains my goal. I am wary of a professionalism which is based upon facile and reliable self-imitation, no matter how perfect or accomplished it may seem. I believe that American experimentalism is rooted in this critical, thoughtful perspective, and continues to be today, even though European-style philosophical inquiry into music is totally out of fashion here. Unfortunately, the productive notion of a ‘critical composer’ seems unfairly tangled up with admonishments of ‘academic composers’. With professionals in academia, and a long tradition of American critical composition outside of academia, perhaps the notion of an ‘academic composer’ cannot be rehabilitated.

    To your question: the question should be, what, to you, is “good” and what is composition for? Knowing confidently that you will become increasingly adept at refining a compositional voice which is already determined will make you a good professional writing good music—and maybe a very successful one. But what if good music is the music that compels you to explore that which you do not yet know? While I certainly lean towards the latter, and have chosen a career in academia so as to follow that trajectory, every new piece is a negotiation between the will to exploration and professional decisions based on the particular context, players, and time–but decisions, hopefully, made thoughtfully!

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  4. davidwolfson

    You know, painters get to paint the same thing over and over again, slightly differently each time, and they feel they’re just exploring all the possible ramifications and variations on their ideas. When they’re done painting haystacks at evening (for instance), they’re done with their “haystack at evening” period.

    Jasper Johns painted a hell of a lot of flags—and then moved on to other things, except when he came back to them, presumably because he had found or discovered something else that made flag-painting interesting again.

    I don’t see why we composers should treat ourselves any differently; if I’m still interested by one set of compositional tools, then I’m going to keep using them until I’m bored with them, until “Ha! Here’s how that would work in this piece” becomes “Hmm… I think I’ve done that before.”

    Then I’ll start forcibly broadening my horizons.

    Stephen Sondheim:

    “Stop worrying if your vision
    Is new
    Let others make that decision
    They usually do.”

    David Wolfson

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  5. mclaren

    But most of the habits we start out with aren’t our own, so to speak—they’re habits we learn from our teachers, models, and sometimes even colleagues.

    Some of us don’t have this problem.

    Some of us have no teachers and no models and no colleagues. Some of us have been heading out into intergalactic space, musically speaking, for so long that you need the Hubble telescope to see us at all.

    In those cases, when each new composition involves a tuning no one has ever used before and rhythms that can’t be notated using conventional musical notation, much less played by humans, the musical material itself tells you what it wants to do.

    For those us out there in musical intergalactic space, listening to each new tuning provides the cues for each step forward. Habituation remains a luxury which some of us can never enjoy: as a result, posts like this seem to come from an entirely different civilization, like an artifact from the lost culture of Mohenjo Daro, or a fragment of a clay tablet from Uruk.

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  6. colin holter

    In those cases, when each new composition involves a tuning no one has ever used before and rhythms that can’t be notated using conventional musical notation, much less played by humans, the musical material itself tells you what it wants to do.

    Wow, sounds like you occupy some vast creative hyperspace that entitles you to a) disagree with everything you read on NewMusicBox and b) lord it over the rest of us who stagger beneath the weight of hoary old convention. It also sounds like your work is genuinely interesting, but that’s unfortunate – because your attitude is extraordinarily off-putting.

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