In the wake of the recent premiere of a piece for medium-size chamber ensemble, I’ve been forced to consider a problem I’ve been putting off for years: My music just doesn’t sound good enough.
It’s not that I think it isn’t good enough, it just doesn’t sound good enough. I’ve invested most of my self-improvement efforts in refining my experiential sensibilities, read Schoenberg instead of Rimsky-Korsakov, and ignored the obvious: How does it sound? I’m reminded of a former bandmate’s reaction to the forgettable mainstream rock opus “The Reason” by forgettable mainstream rock act Hoobastank; he commented that the song is awful, but when the video played on MTV he couldn’t stop listening because it sounded so great. (I almost have two degrees in music. Howard Benson, who produced that Hoobastank record, has a bachelor’s in materials engineering, and he knows more about sound than I do! I demand a refund.)
In part, it’s a problem of scale. I generally write for small combinations of instruments; clearly, however, one can’t compose for twelve instruments the same way one composes for two or three. Twelve-voice counterpoint exercises (a fair characterization of my recent piece) are not necessarily exciting listening, especially if they don’t take full advantage of the ensemble’s sonic possibilities—possibilities which, in retrospect, are much more varied than I’d considered while writing the piece.
What to do? I think the first step is to lose my hang-up about octaves. After two years of intense conditioning as an undergraduate, I have an almost Pavlovian knee-jerk when I see un-cancelled octaves in atonal music. I haven’t written a doubled instrumental line in probably five years. The second step is probably to study pieces that do sound good and try to discern why. At that point it’s just a matter of writing new pieces that sound better. Easy, right? Just ask the dude who produced “The Reason.”