In his most recent post on NewMusicBox, Randy Nordschow investigates—and ultimately rejects—the necessity of emotional distress as a compositional crucible. By and large, I think he’s right, but there may be more to discuss on the issue; I hope Randy will excuse my devil’s advocacy.
Do you have to suffer to produce excellent music? Hard to say: Cage didn’t, and Randy doesn’t, but you (and I) might. If I haven’t written anything that I’d consider “excellent”—and frankly I haven’t yet—maybe I’m not investing enough of myself. Until I write an excellent piece, I won’t know. Maybe I need to bring myself to the brink of physical illness to reach my creative breakthrough…but at 6’3” and a buck fifty, I’m not sure I can handle it.
On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t have to do with pain and suffering after all. It’s possible, I suppose, that I’m just not letting the music percolate long enough. Maybe I’m rushing my music out the door too soon and ought to edit more carefully, even if it doubles my composing time. A more painstaking vetting process could be just what I need…or, for all I know, it could hamstring my output with no noticeable benefit.
What if neither torture nor time can furnish the silver bullet I seek? Maybe I just haven’t learned enough. Maybe I haven’t heard enough music, pored over as many scores as I should have, read the right issues of Perspectives. Maybe a trip (or two, or ten) to the library will give me the critical apparatus I need to kick it up a notch…or maybe it’ll just make my hereditary nearsightedness even worse.
My responsibility, as a composer, is to do good work. If doing good work requires that I urinate blood, or grow old assaying my scores ad nauseam with a red pen, or simply crack some books, so be it.
Whether it’s worth developing a serious malady, physiological or psychological, to lubricate one’s compositional efforts is a different question entirely. But I can’t answer either question until I know what doing good work requires. As soon as I figure it out, I’ll let you know.