Beginning composition lessons with a new teacher is always an opportunity for one’s aesthetic worldview to be shaken up. Listeners and colleagues might offer comments or suggestions after a performance, but here’s a person who gets paid to tell you how to make your music better, a person whose expertise, opinions, and beliefs on music (and many other topics) may differ radically from your own. Maybe this person thinks what you do is stupid. Maybe he or she thinks it’s pretty okay. Maybe you can’t really see past the poker face. In any case, it can be a convenient time to reevaluate the foundations of one’s compositional thinking, to assay the assumptions that underlie one’s music.
One of the assumptions I’ve been moved to confront since I’ve started working with a new teacher has to do with scale. It was suggested that my pieces might not be reaching their potential because their conceptual theses can’t be fully argued in the relatively short time-frames with which I usually work (my pieces tend to be four to ten minutes in length, generally speaking). This is at once a reassuring and frustrating thought: Although it buttresses my conviction that the not-specifically-musical ideas in my music aren’t getting irrevocably lost, it also means that I may have to be more aggressive about seeking opportunities to mount larger and longer pieces, which are of course harder to secure—and I might even want to stop writing smallish pieces, which are the only ones people seem to be asking me for! What to do?
I’ve been reading quite a bit about La Monte Young recently. Although my music is nothing like Young’s, I’ve been inspired by his temerity. Even when he was a teenager in Los Angeles, he refused to not be taken seriously, and even his very earliest pieces (which, as it happens, are quite long) show it. Throughout his career he’s been intransigent about the things that matter to him; although he’s paid dearly for it, in anxiety as well as money. I’d imagine, he’s earned a place in the music history books—and his music, no matter one’s opinion about it, is completely uncompromised.
This kind of obstinacy is a gamble, however. (It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that all facets of the American composer’s life are gambles of one sort of another.) Is it worth limiting one’s options in the short term to realize what may ultimately be a much more valuable project? To over-simplify, is the bad piece we hear better than the good piece we don’t?