I’m taking a break from composing to write this column. I’ve been working on a piece for twelve wind instruments, an ensemble twice as large as the next-largest ensemble for which I’ve written, and I’m just entering the “will this actually work?” phase. Leaving aside its reception by an audience, it’s possible that this monster will crash and burn as early as the first rehearsal. The piece is too far outside my usual realm of musical endeavor for me to predict its success with any accuracy.
We sometimes refer to new music—or a particular subcategory of new music—as “experimental music;” in other words, music of uncertain results. The piece I’m hacking away at probably doesn’t represent the kind of experiment that will reveal heretofore unseen potentials for musical development to the compositional community at large, but it’s certainly an experiment for me. There are so many balls to juggle, so to speak—so many (occasionally contradictory) compositional goals, so many dimensions of criteria, so many strata of craftsmanship. Even in a solo piece, a medium in which I’m much more comfortable, it’s hard enough to decide what to do and then to actually do it. I shudder to think what kind of neurosis would afflict me if I were to try to write a piece for orchestra!
However, it’s only by taking risks that we can transcend our limitations. William Faulkner’s criticism of Ernest Hemingway was that he didn’t take risks, that he never left his literary comfort zone. He was an unqualified success at being “Ernest Hemingway,” testosterone-powered and daiquiri-buttressed badass, but he was seldom (if ever) able to be more than that. (Incidentally, Hemingway responded to Faulkner’s comments with a letter, written while drunk, that you should totally read.) There’s something undeniably frightening about taking creative risks, opening oneself up to a heightened possibility of failure. Nevertheless, the composers I respect most have continued to push themselves and, if necessary, change direction mid-career as they feel their music requires. And unlike me, some of them had to contend with a public which expected them to keep churning out familiar music once their styles had been established!
I’m going to get back to the grind. Whether or not this piece comes off as well as I hope it will, I’ll be damned if I’ll let it scare me off before I even finish it.