This month’s NewMusicBox Cover brought back more than a few memories of lessons with Martin Bresnick, which were some of my most formative musical experiences. Having recently devoted a lot of space to compositional problems and challenges, I thought that now might be an appropriate time to discuss something more positive: the values and experiences that define us as composers and continue to serve as sources of strength.
Although I have picked up composing tips from all kinds of odd places, I think that a good teacher’s ability to share a vision is particularly powerful in shaping a composer’s development. I never studied formally with Martin, but it only took a few lessons for his musical vision to make a big impact. Particularly helpful was his conception of musical development in relation to a premise rather than a melodic or rhythmic motive. A premise could be pretty much anything—some kind of quasi-dramatic problem, or a set of initial conditions with certain inbuilt tendencies, or even the crude sense of what happens in the piece. Martin showed me how a piece based on a strong underlying premise provided ample room for both rigor and the freedom to depart from it; it was a way to plan and organize my writing around something alive and changing instead of just “realizing a blueprint.”
Sometimes the best thing a teacher has been able to show me is how they themselves really work. I’m very grateful for a lesson with John Corigliano in which he described his own work habits and confessed to being a slow composer at times—something I had not expected him to say, and which went a long way in reassuring me in my own slowness. Corigliano was even kind enough to show me some of his sketches, which revealed a Socratic, by-the-bootstraps method of self-questioning; proceeding from lists of basic requirements for a new piece, he begins to examine both the opportunities and potential pitfalls, eventually answering his own questions and by doing so generating a good deal of the project at hand. Whenever I’m feeling particularly uncreative I’ve found that my own variation on this technique always brings me more clarity than I had before.
My very first composition teacher, Pat Morehead, had all kinds of good pointers. I remember one lesson in which she had just been explaining modes of limited transposition, while my own modest effort in d minor seemed to glare at me from the piano—maybe the first time I had ever felt sheepish about my own music not being “advanced.” I think Pat must have noticed this because she made a point of telling me that there’s nothing wrong with writing a piece in d minor as long as it is written out of personal choice, not bumbled into out of ignorance. Ever since, I’ve tried to use this principle to keep my compass aligned and ensure that I’m not avoiding some technique or element just because I don’t know how to do it properly.
Of course, we get so much more out of teachers than just these sound bytes; after all, it’s the week-to-week kicking around of the current compositional effort where the most consistent progress is made. But I think there is something in a composer’s personal vision of music that can be communicated much earlier and perhaps may leave a more lasting impression.