To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the composerly life is the continuing search for balance between quiet time alone and periods of social activity. Swings between these poles of social extremes form an intrinsic part of the nature of a career spent composing for traditional instruments. Without lengthy retreats into contemplative silence, it is impossible for sounds to coalesce into fully realized works. And without emerging into the public eye, these works never leap off the page into sonic reality, a task that requires collaboration with both performers and audience.
For the past several weeks, I have been fortunate to have the luxury of hours of uninterrupted time, alone in relative quiet. I found myself wallowing in this vast emptiness, exploring unbounded ideas, following wherever these thoughts led. And some days the notes flowed easily while on others I could not add more than a dot or two to the task at hand. Of course, I firmly believe that these latter occasions can be even more productive than the former, because those are the times when I push through barriers and create new solutions to problems that have vexed me over extended periods.
During these quiet times, I believe that I would be perfectly happy if I never left my room. When I have these periods of retreat, I don’t feel any particular pull towards the outside world, instead, the more time I spend in isolation, the more I seek to be alone. The hermitages allow ideas to be sown and to germinate, all in one lengthy process. Tasks that might stretch over months instead can be compressed into hours. Whereas I normally find that the process of molding an idea from a glimmer to an object to be laborious and sometimes painful, during these periods outside normal life, the labor falls away and instead I can rediscover the wonder of creation.
To me, the siren song is pure silence.
But it truly is a siren song, because for me pure silence traverses through depths that preclude any return to normal life. And so even in these periods of hermitage, I try to emerge from my cave, metaphorically squinting at the light, leaving my den but not venturing so far as to expose myself to the dangers of real life. For me, simple pleasures like a good meal or a movie viewed in the theater can pull me out of isolation without making me feel fully engaged in the world. And an evening of improvisation as part of Out of Your Head inspired new compositional solutions while also introducing me to new friends and allowing me to reconnect with old ones.
My period of hermitage ends today with my first visit to campus for the spring semester. And I am truly looking forward to the interactions with students and colleagues, who continue to inspire me towards new directions and new ideas. Over the next several months, I will encounter dozens of new faces, will travel to several places to hear and present music, and will enjoy time spent exchanging thoughts and learning from the people around me. At concerts, I will hear beautiful music, and after the concerts I will connect with friends—both old and new—to discuss life and music and the joy we derive from combining those two elements.
A true Gemini, I appreciate both aspects of this dialectic. When circumstances force me to re-enter society, I can be energized by those around me. When nothing pulls me away from my desk, I can sit quietly in happy meditation for extended periods of time. As daily life intrudes into my quiet time, I am hopeful that this new period arrives laden with hidden opportunities. And I hope the silent song of the sirens resonates throughout this transition.