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?