The First Rule of Composer Club Is…

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.

3 thoughts on “The First Rule of Composer Club Is…

  1. pgblu

    Kick it up
    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.

    You don’t need me to tell you it’s a matter of quality, not quantity. How many composers you know is not as important as how many different composers and musical experiences get your creative juices flowing. Who cares whether you can whistle all of Beethoven’s contredances, as long as you know the op. 119 bagatelles.

    As for Perspectives articles, I will keep my mouth shut.

    Reply
  2. stevetaylor

    Lucky Mosko told us that Cage’s practice of non-intentionality came about partly because of his piece The Perilous Night, which he wrote as his marriage to Xenia was falling apart. He played it for one of his friends who responded, that’s a nice piece John! It didn’t express to his friend what he himself was feeling; so he decided, maybe music should try to express Nothing. I’ve always thought he would not have arrived at this idea without suffering.

    The music you write comes about as a combination of nature and nurture: who you are and what you do. We only have control over the second, but it can gradually change the first.

    Reply
  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    The issues are so difficult to separate.

    Are you driven to compose even if you hate it? Is composing stressful work? Do external forces that cause you to suffer affect your composing more than other activities?

    And then, how can you tell if this effect is a good one? Like work made under the influence of drugs or alcohol, that change of perspective from suffering may only be meaningful while in the state, and the resulting work lack what you thought was there.

    But it’s easy to dance around the issue. Isn’t the real question whether the romantic notion of suffering for art was, is, or can be valid?

    Self-doubt is part of it: Is my work any good, worth doing? Can someone other than me judge the work, and am I simply tired of being so close to this artistic being I’ve created? Am I too old, too young, too incomplete to have anything meaningful to say? With historical weight so strong, stronger than ever in an age of ubiquitous recording and network distribution, am I able to work in history’s shadow without collapsing? Has time passed me by or not caught up or racing ahead? Have I insight or not? Am I a fraud?

    And then there are the practical questions: Is the time and effort degrading my physical being or my humanity? Can’t I do something else more gratifying to me or more helpful to my family? Is the character of my work contributing to society, or is my vanity so great that it causes me to believe so? Does humanity need any more of this stuff I squeeze out? Is it time to set childish passions aside?

    For those determined to continue to be composers, some doubts increasingly fall away as technique improves and time validates the work. What is practice for or abandoned by one composer can be a full-fledged composition for someone else.

    I am halfway though my “We Are All Mozart” project and, after having composed 54 pieces so far this year, I have learned that deadlines and experiencing the desire to have my music (and know that someone will even pay for it) wipes away the mildew of self-doubt that has grown around my psyche. And the project has been emulated by other composers, some of whom agree that self-doubt declines and technique improves. The joy and post-partum depression of completing a work both deepen, but one careens into the next composition. There is no choice, do doubt, self or otherwise.

    The practical suffering of time and stress and immediate doubt about accomplishing a composition’s goals increases, while simultaneously reducing the psychological suffering of self-doubt over quality and draining the well of inspiration — it is far deeper than I would have guessed, and replenishes itself.

    And as to quantity not quality, I’m not so sure. Before I began this project, I had no evidence of either. Quantity issues seemed a modernist fetish to me anyway, fading as that era fades. Young composers are more prolific, their work is unabashed, and their ideas expressed with greater fullness and intensity as they write more and more. The proportion of “good” to “bad” — yeah, whatever that is — seems to shift for the “good”. I love what I hear today. The music created in the depths of the anti-quantity fetish period of the mid-20th century and promulgated by my fellow baby-boomers was sometimes absolutely dismal, but there wasn’t a lot to be found anyway outside the bargain bins and mail order backwaters.

    Perhaps this is a marketplace effect, distasteful as that is to think of for an unreconstructed social liberal like me. More composers, more performances, more ideas increase the overall gorgeosity of musical creation, and have the potential to reduce the artistic “suffering” by growing the community of composers with common experiences of self-doubt, who can then set suffering aside as so much noise.

    Dennis

    Reply

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