While composing a piece of music is certainly a challenge, I’ve come to realize that the challenge of building a career in composing lies in the fact that developing a body of work is an exponentially more complex task—a task that cannot be accurately understood by extrapolating from the process of composing just one piece. While it might be easy to imagine the challenge of composing fifty pieces to be just (a lot) more of the same, I’ve found the underlying challenge to deepen the larger one’s “family” of compositions grows.
Of the many reasons that I (and a significant amount of my composer-acquaintances) have gotten slower at composing rather than faster as our careers progressed, despite an assumed net increase in competence through experience and sheer repetition, I see this main one: our work is increasing exponentially all the time, locked in a geometric progression of ever widening complexity rather than a simple arithmetic progression of repeating similar tasks.
That’s because the tasks aren’t that similar. When I first slapped a double bar on a 5-line staff, I had no other pieces that I was building off of, no previous baggage with composing, and no need think ahead. If I took this same approach with each successive piece, I think what might have happened is the compositional equivalent of ordering chocolate ice cream all the time—always ordering our favorite flavor (or always picking one’s pet forms, styles, and musical bag-o-tricks) rather than realizing that having certain tastes and predilections shouldn’t preclude one from enriching their experiences with novelty (and the chance of perhaps finding a “new” favorite that surpasses expectations). But baggage does begin to accumulate, and while baggage as such is often seen in a negative light I think in this case it makes possible some of the most exhilarating refinements of the compositional journey. Seeing my current and future works in the context of earlier efforts reminds me that not every piece has to do everything, and that there are many ways of being myself without becoming a caricature of myself.
This process of delegating different efforts and experiments to different compositional opportunities is what begins to multiply the complexities of a creative life. Each piece is potentially forever, and even pieces I’ve withdrawn have an alarming habit of popping up in a seeming never-ending chain of copies. Nowadays, I’m forever trying to match ideas and interests with gigs and resources, and as each year passes I find myself spending more of my creative brainstorming sorting out which ideas will be explored in which piece, and which opportunities are best suited to an idea. It’s hard enough to have to do my best failing to avoid the apparent influences of Bach, Beethoven, and the like; in what has become a more dauntingly unnatural task, I now have to avoid my own past efforts.