Confessions of a Speed Freak

I’m incredibly lazy as a composer. How lazy? I once wrote a 24-minute piece for five guitars, trumpet, live electronics, water, and video feed in exactly 24 minutes—I had my roommate time me with a stopwatch to make sure I stayed within my self-imposed time allotment. You might even say that laziness has even crept into my core aesthetic stance as an artist. It’s something I don’t often reveal to other composers because, for some reason, many hold on to the belief that composing music is something to struggle with. I simply disagree. Although composition is a thoughtful act, I don’t see the point of wasting time and pouring so much energy into deciding, then second-guessing, which note should be committed to the page next. The process can be a joy, so why do so many turn it into something arduous.

The lone composer toiling away late into the night, forgetting to eat, not showering for days, fixated on a certain sonority, weighing intervals at the piano then scribbling something down in a flurry—we composers know this image only exists in a romanticized past. Classical music aficionados sometimes forget that composers are entrenched in the real world of laptops, kids, and SUVs. With a life full of distractions, composers have to strike a balance between life and work. My solution: Be a composer only when you have to be, and spend most of your time simply living life. I used to aspire to the quaint notion of life-as-art, but I’ve decided to leave that to Yoko Ono. She’s much better at it.

As you can gather, I spend more time thinking about writing music than actually doing it. One of my most successful pieces was composed while walking across a darkened room, writing down numbers displayed by Tatsuo Miyajima’s LED installation Counter Line. A 10-minute chamber piece took three days, and a string orchestra piece, two weeks—that one was fast and dense with a lot of notes. To achieve such speedy results and still wind up with an end product I can stand by, I juxtapose my own conceptual rigor with a healthy dose of apathy. After all, it’s only music.

By the way, that 24-minute piece received quite the complement from a prominent composer/sound artist. As I recall, it was the structure of the piece that garnered praise. But I wonder, would this praise have been delivered at all if he were aware of the slapdash conditions under which this structure was created? My bet is that listeners might somehow feel gypped if they knew the composer invested the same amount of time as they did. But none of this should really matter as long as the music has impact.

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3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Speed Freak

  1. Marc

    speedy
    I was rather depressed when it took me eight weeks to prepare the first trumpet part of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in college, when it took Bartok a mere four weeks to write the entire piece.

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  2. Alex Shapiro

    “The lone composer toiling away late into the night, forgetting to eat, not showering for days, fixated on a certain sonority, weighing intervals at the piano then scribbling something down in a flurry—we composers know this image only exists in a romanticized past. “

    We do?? Waitaminute…. maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this in print, but your romanticized image above happens to describe my Tues-Wed-Thurs of last week, as I was maniacally steeped in a deadline-looming project that had me riveted to my writing desk. I think there may have been one shower in there, somewhere. And a trusty jar of peanut butter….

    “The process can be a joy, so why do so many turn it into something arduous.”

    Some do. But others are simply… uh… gleefully obsessed.

    I do think Randy’s advice is good; being a whole human is essential to being an artist, otherwise one would have nothing to communicate and no experiences from which to draw.

    As for his last comment: A couple of months ago I attended a concert that included a Beethoven French horn and piano work, the title of which I have purposely forgotten. Suffice it to say that it was not the result of this genius’ finest moment, despite the dedication of two wonderful musicians. Introducing the piece, the evening’s emcee intrigued the audience with a report that Beethoven had composed the duet overnight (talk about looming deadlines; that one apparently never even had the chance to hover). Well, after hearing this harmless and unremarkable work, I turned to a friend and proclaimed that it indeed sounded as though it was written overnight. But had I liked it, I would have only been enormously impressed, not feeling cheated for a moment.

    More power to those that can tap into The Flow, as I call it, and summon their best-nourished muses to break down that stubborn divide between the right brain– with all those fabulous ideas– and the left– with all those neuroses and baggage. When that bridge occurs on those all-too-rare days, it’s absolutely magical.

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  3. JKG

    requires hard work, even if it is fun. All the hack stuff IS worth it, provided one completes one idea and goes on to the next. I find writing two or three hours in the morning, then two hours later in the day helps me to stay focused on getting things done. Beethoven wrote five or six hours straight through mid afternoon, and then was done for the day (his eyes, some think). As far as original ideas go, working on several pieces at once is useful. My agent hates that I do this, but I throw away anything substandard to my aesthetic wishes. Because content and orchestration are the biggest trials of my own writing, I tend to set up the macrocosm first so as to work anywhere at any time within the piece. I write strictly tonal music, but I cull whatever techniques the atonalists and serialists have devised for their own use as a way to produce variations. I also mix and match motifs, but only if there’s a “lull” in the action. Once I get really tired or sleepy, I totally back off from writing.

    Not being a drunk or a drug fiend, I don’t worry about Kerouacian moments where I stay up days at a time obsessing over anything within my music. It is the ordering of limits and proscribing of tasteful goals which help insure my work is done right on time.

    I could use a haircut, come to think of it (speaking of Beethoven).

    Reply

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