If You’ve Got the Time

All the debate currently raging about what a composer should be able to hear made me ponder a series of questions that seem equally contentious: How much time should a composer spend composing? How frequently should new works spring forth? Pundits periodically profess that some composers write too much music. Is such a claim valid? And if it is, how much is too much? Is it also possible to not write enough?

Back in 2005, Randy posited that composers labor too much over their works; he even described composing a 24-minute composition in 24 minutes. But what I’m wondering is something somewhat different. How frequently should composers be engaged in the process of composing? As in, should you be making time to compose every day? For how long each day? Is that time well spent even if, at the end of it, you haven’t actually composed anything?

How frequently do you need to create a new piece of music in order to be at peace with yourself when you describe yourself as a composer? After maintaining steady composing activity in the first half of the ’00s, I’ve had a creatively frustrating time in the last two years. In 2006, I started four different compositions and ultimately never finished any of them. This past year, rather than complete any of those, I started a few others that I also could not find time to complete. But with only six hours of 2007 left to go on December 31, I miraculously completed a short new piece for solo harpsichord that had been gnawing at me for months. It was extremely gratifying, but ultimately what difference would it have made if I didn’t finish the piece until January 2?

A different line of questioning, but one that’s ultimately related: Is there a minimum number of compositions you need to have created in order to be a composer? Could you count yourself as a composer if you’ve only created two compositions? Three? Are Edgard Varèse and Carl Ruggles worse composers than other 20th-century luminaries because each completed fewer than a dozen works? Do you stop being a composer if you stop composing, i.e. Jean Sibelius, Charles Ives, Captain Beefheart, etc.? And if you keep composing throughout your life, must your compositions continue to evolve? Bernard Holland seemed to imply in yet another provocative column published just before the end of 2007 that Chopin said all he was going to say as a composer, so posterity did not lose much from him not living longer to create more music. I personally would be thrilled if there were more than four Ballades.

10 thoughts on “If You’ve Got the Time

  1. justjonathan

    I think it’s best to not feel crushed under the weight of our own ambitions and identities. It seems that the more pressure I place on myself to be identified as this or that, the less likely there will be success and joy. The question of “what do you do?” is the biggest one in the US, but really how much does that mean to our personal satisfaction?

    Do composers write too much? Well…

    From a practical stand point, personally I would trade all of the mediocre pieces I wrote from 91 to 00 for one piece that I can still truly admire! (those were the student years) For the 00s, I’ve written several hundred pieces of commercial music and about a dozen concert pieces, and I have to say that I am much more satisfied with the process of writing fewer pieces that express more.

    How long should you write?

    For me the composing day is always fairly long, but I write commercial music most of the time with fairly clear deadlines. Most days I want to finish so I can have a life outside of music too. A good 2 hours is better than an unproductive 4, but those unproductive 4 may lead to a super productive 1 tomorrow! So, it ebbs and flows. Best to make peace with the process or you’ll ultimately not enjoy it and will find another pursuit. I really think it depends on the piece as to how much time should be spent. Having said that, if I’m on a gig or have a concert piece to finish, I’m punching the clock! : I’m writing M-F from 10-8, S from 10-5.

    As for the minimum number of compositions, I don’t think it exists. I wanted to vomit in school, when the prolific nature of certain composers was trumpeted. Yeah, I guess it’s great that Haydn wrote all of those symphonies, but they all really sound the same to me! But a single piece of Varese, like Ameriques is monumental. It’s the same in pop music – My Bloody Valentine only made one great record, but I’d listen to it a thousand times more than all of the songs that the Eagles and Manilow wrote combined!

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    I admire those disciplined types who compose on a schedule. For myself, sometimes I chip away at a work and other times the composing takes on a life of its own and hundreds of measures seem to come at a moment.

    I’ve tackled long-term projects; I just finished a 3 act opera that took me 10 years to complete. Short ones too. Well, haven’t we all?

    There can be distractions. Good ones like-practice time for my solo performances and some not so good as in health issues including an attack of shingles that left me with severe headaches and unable to compose.

    That was the hardest part

    Phil Fried

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  3. Leos

    Yeah, I guess it’s great that Haydn wrote all of those symphonies, but they all really sound the same to me!

    Sorry to stray a bit, but I can’t let this one go by. You have no idea what you’re missing in Haydn’s work, and how sadly glib your comment sounds to someone who actually does know a fair amount of it; how many of his symphonies have you actually listened to? He was prolific, true, but also possessed of one of the most inventive musical minds we’ve yet seen.

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  4. justjonathan

    Sorry about Haydn.
    You’re right, maybe I should give Haydn a better look. It’s been a long time;tastes and perceptions change. I was just trying to state that I personally would have preferred more time in my college days to be devoted to composers that are more relevant to what I do now. No disrespect.

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  5. Leos

    Haydn again
    I appreciate your response; if I went a little overboard–which I know I did–it’s because I teach students who probably know a lot more Mozart than Haydn, and I feel that he tends to be underrated. As a college student I didn’t appreciate him as much either, but the older I get, the more relevant he becomes, and it’s absolutely fascinating to see how much credit Beethoven gets for things that Haydn did first. If you do get around to giving him another try and are looking for his relevance, look especially carefully at how he plays with time, not only surface rhythm and syncopation, but also the deft use of silence and odd phrase lengths. Check out in particular the trio of the minuet of Symphony No. 92 –the “Oxford,” though there are many, many examples that could be cited. Again, sorry to get off topic. I’ll give it a rest now.

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  6. Elaine Fine

    I write music because I love to write music, even when it is hard work to write music. I always have a project going, and I always try to have another one in the works as a safety net so that when I am finished with one piece I can slip into working on another. That amounts to a lot of music, I guess.

    I tend to get kind of depressed if I’m not working on something, so I try to avoid that situation by working on arrangements or by messing around with ideas for something that I might think about writing in the future. Maybe it is kind of like knitting (which I don’t do): it is the act of doing it that brings pleasure.

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  7. greyfeeld

    haydn again …
    You’re not the only one who’s busts on Haydn. One of Rorem’s diary entries writes off the whole thing. His loss. Among the more bizarre and lesser known of his works, the Symphony #60 “Il Distratto” has a movement where they speed up the slow movement in a way that would make Carl Stalling jump. And the final movement has the violins beginning on the wrong key and then having them tune it up … while they’re playing. For me the most interesting of his ‘unknown’ ones is Symphony #65 in A, in which the slow movement is so spare, it sounds like Haydn was taking dictation off of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. The final movement has some very strange fillips as well. Everbest, Robert Bonotto

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  8. teresa

    For those of you interested in the “odd” side of Haydn, I recommend Gretchen Wheelock’s book:
    Haydn’s Ingenious Jesting with Art: Contexts of Musical Wit and Humor (Schirmer; 1992). She turned me on to Haydn as a student at Eastman (even if I don’t listen to much Haydn now…)

    Isn’t it amazing how “off topic” people can get in these Chatters? (Sorry Frank! : )

    Reply
  9. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Frank’s topic was the subject of my NMBx piece in September of 2006, “Composers and Productivity: The Embodiment of Discomfort”.

    The raw survey contained an enormous amount of excellent commentary from dozens of composers, and, together with a final look at my 2007 “We Are All Mozart” project, will be the subject of a book later this year.

    So I’ll save the juicy bits until then! But conscious productivity or deliberate lack of it are often wrapped tight inside a composer’s self-esteem. Very scary business, even for those taken by the mystique of the low-output composers like Varèse and Ruggles.

    But, crass moi, I personally think it’s more about the demand, the desire, and the money. As I hinted in my blog in October of 2006, “The unproductive composer is a modern phenomenon, and it’s not really possible to know if the reasons are scruples or economics. If more people were knocking at the doors of Webern, Varèse, Ruggles, Kurtág, and Chowning — checks in hand, performances scheduled, audiences in heat — what might have been the result?”

    Dennis

    Reply

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