Don’t Beat Yourself Up

While I was talking shop with a few other composers, the topic of conversation veered towards the difficulties that folks experience when they sit down to compose. The consensus was that composing is something of a struggle. Someone even suggested that if it’s not the hardest thing you do in your life, then you’re not taking it seriously enough. As usual, my take on the matter ran counter to popular opinion. Despite all of the problem solving and decision making that confront a composer at every step of the compositional process, I think the ordeal should be joyous rather than painful. Sure, adversity builds character, but so do a lot of other, less arduous things.

Despite the diatribes that dribble from my fingertips and onto this blog, I’m basically a non-confrontational guy. And, as someone with less time to compose than I’d like (okay, I guess a lot of people have the same issue), if my compositional process involved the hardships that others claim to encounter, I doubt I’d make any room in my already brimming schedule for any self-induced mental torture. No thanks. I’ll pass. Luckily, I find that my overtly conceptual approach to composition allows me some leeway when it comes to the hairier note-by-note decisions which others sometimes wrestle with for days, only to finally settle upon that first instinct they had last week. With an idea-driven extra-musical framework on which to build, I tend to rush these atomic-level decisions to the point of intuition, and I feel justified given the fact that I may think about a piece for a year before I ever managed to sit down and write it out.

Don’t infer, because of that last statement, that I’m one of those genius-types that have every detail planned before pen hits paper—I’m not. Good thing too, because I like my music a little messy, or, at the very least, messier than the idealized sounds and structures that pop into my head while I’m composing. Even if nothing specific comes to mind while I’m working, I rarely find it hard to find the next note, sonority, or texture. And I don’t buy the notion that pulling your hair out in order to make a decision contributes to the ultimate value of the finished product. Great music can be made the easy way or the hard way—both are valid in the end.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Beat Yourself Up

  1. Matthew

    A great Lukas Foss quote on this topic, from a lecture he gave at BU back when I was there:

    “There is a piece I wrote twenty-five years ago called Echoi, where I literally became ill from the frustration of not being able to find the solution I was looking for. I thought at one point that I would not only be unable to finish the piece but that I would never be able to write another one. I began to have blurred vision, symptomatic of possible brain damage. Fortunately, it was all just psychological. And after three years of painstaking work, I finished Echoi. I remember playing it for my friend Leonard Bernstein, whose reaction was, “Good Lord, Lukas, this sounds like your last will.” Ultimately, Echoi turned out to be a breakthrough. For the next ten years, I walked the paths opened by the insights and discoveries the piece brought into my music. Sometimes there’s no shortcut. One just has to be through the ordeal. I remember John Cage saying, “Lukas, you still suffer when you compose? I don’t suffer anymore…HA, HA,” and he laughed that wonderful Cagian laugh. Well, he was much too Zen to suffer, and I was much too western not to suffer. suffering is certainly no guarantee for good work. The suffering genius is another one of those nineteenth-century clichés.”

    Reply
  2. Kyle Gann

    Ease
    I’ve always said I could write a good piece in three weeks, but a bad one takes me six months.

    Reply
  3. zlebret

    To be fair
    To say the act of composing is challenging doesn’t necessarily translate to unenjoyable. I don’t imagine we as artists grow without a few obstacles.

    Reply

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