The Pace of Being a Composer
One of the many aspects of composing that institutional learning did little to prepare me for is the peculiar pacing with which one’s compositional efforts unfold. To begin with my own experience, each successive project feels a little like being loaded into a slingshot, pulled carefully back, and after what seems like an unconscionable amount of time, released. That’s a function of my particular circumstances (composing mostly acoustic music for live performances): after a huge, tense period of composing in which my mind is primed, there is usually a long hiatus—sometimes as much as a year—before rehearsals, which frequently tend to be not much before the premiere date. In other words, there’s a long–term exploratory/gestational process, followed by an awkward gap and then sudden culmination.
I’ll offer as an example a recent premiere at Adelphi University earlier this month: I had completed the new work (a string quartet) months in advance, but despite an awful lot of correspondence with the ensemble I hadn’t yet met each member until the morning of the premiere. In a strange turn of events, I was scheduled to teach a class for theory and composition students on the new piece. The talk was to include performed excerpts, and we hadn’t yet had a chance to even run the composition. It felt exhilarating (and only slightly absurd) to ask the listeners to turn their ears to some aspect of measure 412, knowing that I would be nearly as surprised as them. Fortunately, a strong ensemble, some clear markings on my part, and good communication conspired to make the day a success.
I hope the above anecdote gives some impression of the way my particular experiences as a composer shape the overall rhythm and cadence of my life: long periods of stasis punctuated by almost manic levels of activity, all at once. But there are a lot of different kinds of composers, and even more ways of making a living as a composer. I suspect that composers who work primarily in an improvisational medium have a completely different pace of musical experiences, as might composer-performers or members of bandsembles and other collectives; and for composers for who work primarily with audio (resulting in a sonic document rather than a paper blueprint ), the slingshot-style pacing I describe above might not even seem vaguely familiar.
At about 18 or so (when I first had an inkling that I might want to become “a composer”), I had no idea that composer could refer to so many diverse and interesting paths. Throughout my so-called formal education as well, being a composer was presented as some kind of vague, all-encompassing cookie-cutter. Today, I know better; I’ve made friends who have gone into pop production, others who have pursued an interest in concert organizing and curatorial work, and one very dear acquaintance who gets BMI royalties for wry beat-based compositions crafted only from samples of his own farts. There are in fact many ways of being a composer, but as far as I’m aware of, only one way not to be one: by ceasing to compose. This ought to be the main message that we would seek to impart on each new generation of composers: that we must each follow our own inner rhythms, and that we must take the initiative to discover the way of being a composer that makes the most sense not to our peers, or to our teachers, but to us.
Before leaving Adelphi, an earnest undergrad asked me about her prospects of seeing her music in print. As our discussion got underway it became clear that, among other difficulties, this young lady was becoming frustrated in the pursuit of her goal due to the fact that she notated only pencil sketches of her compositions, and then developed and finalized them as audio tracks rife with all kinds of exquisite, un-notatable effects. I know next to nothing about publishing, but in this case I didn’t need to: I couldn’t help but observe that the student’s professed goal seemed arbitrary and more importantly, a deeply unhappy fit for her musical gifts and passions. I hope that she will be able to abandon whatever idea of being a composer that she has surmised or received from her instructors, and will instead go on to redefine the meaning of composer for herself and a whole new generation.