Tripping Down the Spiral Staircase of Reason

So I’ve recently put the more-or-less finishing touches on a piece that I wrote in under a month (that doesn’t include “thought time,” which is probably closer to six months). The piece I finished just before this one, on the other hand, involved six months of actual composition and probably a year of “thought time.” Paradoxically, my experience to date has been that writing music gets harder as I’ve gotten better at it, but this latest piece doesn’t support that conclusion; it just kind of plopped right out. Rather than be pleased that I’ve executed a creative vision quickly and confidently, I’m (naturally) terrified that I’m clinging to some fluent but shallow compositional facility that the last few pieces have taught me. That’s what writing music has reduced me to: The suspicion that I might have done a good job is itself enough to threaten my mental health. It’s maddening. Dig:

If you want to get better at writing music, you have to practice.
If you practice, writing music gets easier to do.
If writing music is easy, you’re probably not exercising your full potential.
If you’re not reaching your full compositional potential, you need to get better at writing music.

What am I supposed to do with this? Maybe I should go back to the piece I put together so quickly and try to take some bigger risks with it. Maybe I should just put it away for a while and come back to it with clearer critical eyesight—the line between “effortless” and “lazy,” a boundary much toiled over by indie rockers, is difficult to see sometimes. Maybe I should just take a proverbial chill pill. Advice?

18 thoughts on “Tripping Down the Spiral Staircase of Reason

  1. Jay.Derderian

    Perhaps you could look over the piece and see if anything doesn’t meet your standards? Make sure you dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s?

    Don’t over-think it too much, or get too nit picky; only enough so that you’re able to put it down and move onto the next one and not look back apprehensively.

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  2. vinsterrific

    Don’t be concerned with showing all you can do/know in every gesture.

    Big tendency for creators to put everything they know into every measure, which tends to lead to an overly seasoned and sometimes confusing stew.

    Review your great composers and improvisers. Sometimes they would say something interesting or surprising, but, wouldn’t draw too much attention to it, or say it in a seemingly offhanded way – making it look easy while also realizing that the musical piece is/was about something more than musical tricks they had up their sleeve.

    Some of John Coltrane’s most moving improvised statements were amazingly simple, technically speaking. Same goes for Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky; you name it.

    Validity and worth of a musical work are not always measured by the sweat produced in the creation.

    Some composers’ “greatest” or most popular works were those they tossed off in an afternoon. Some say Ravel did not think highly of his “Bolero,” yet, it probably outsells (recordings and live performances) everything else he did, combined.

    Composing is like cooking – you can take several hours to make something complicated that no one, except maybe the cat, enjoys or you can toss together a few simple ingredients for which everyone will want to know the recipe.

    Chill and enjoy the process!

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  3. DJA

    If writing music is easy, you’re probably not exercising your full potential.

    Do people really believe that? Because that’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.

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  4. Colin Holter

    Is it that hard to believe? If I’m writing a piece without having to apply a reasonable amount of elbow grease, it’s likely that I’m capitulating to habituation. It’s easy because it isn’t risky–and it’s hardly “new” if it isn’t risky, I think. I know how to write a 3-minute new-wave-y pop song in the style of late Brinsley Schwarz, say–it’s easy–but it won’t make me any better at doing what I really want to do.

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  5. Chris Becker

    Colin, I agree with Darcy (although I’m trying to refrain from using four letter words these days…).

    Like you, I try to “raise the bar” with each project I take on and I continually push myself out of my comfort zone(s).

    However, if someone is finding it hard to write a piece and has to put in a lot of “elbow grease” (who used that expression on you – some composition professor?) isn’t is possible that they just aren’t that good at what they do and should find some other artistic medium to play with?

    There’s a reason why we call it “playing” music, man. I know that sounds like some silly 4H Club aphorism but the joy we get from creating our work is profound and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for…feeling good and catching a wave….

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  6. bvlasak

    I understand your frustration one hundred percent. Discovering a new work is, for me, work and I think that this is the way it should be. Why? Simply because if something’s too easy, it’s most likely because you aren’t looking outside your own comfort zone.

    That being said, I also think that sometimes there certainly is room for divine inspiration. If it’s not a habit, there’s probably nothing to worry about. But all this is coming from the guy who wants his tombstone inscription to read “DO WORK.”

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  7. dalgas

    I think there are a few kinds of easy, Brian. The “comfort zone” easy that you mention is one; using what you know to make just what you expected. Then there’s the easy where the idea or execution couldn’t be simpler, yet the result is anything but (early Reich, for example).

    But there’s also the kind where what we’re making isn’t at all expected or familiar, yet somehow everything about it comes effortlessly and surely. It may be very complex and require lots of work, but the work itself is easy. It’s like some part in us sees and knows the whole plan, outline to detail. At times it’s almost like half of you is just along for the ride. The hard part there is for the controlling part of the brain to let go in favor of the intuitive. In the end, you may still not know all the whys and hows of your own piece, but you can hear that it came out just right.

    Steve Layton

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  8. DJA

    • The amount of “elbow grease” you personally put into composing it.

    • Whether or not you are “capitulating to habituation.”

    • Whether you feel your piece is “risky.”

    I was presuming that all of us are here are musical adults and not twelve-year old shredheads, and as such have become resigned, however reluctantly, to the idea that music that is ostentatiously hard to play is not necessarily superior to music that is not as hard to play. So I’m a bit confused as to why anyone would still want to cling to the equally juvenile idea that music that required the composer to put in a lot of work is necessarily superior to music that might have come more easily. Fetishizing “elbow grease” as an end in itself doesn’t guarantee a better musical result.

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  9. rtanaka

    Fetishizing “elbow grease” as an end in itself doesn’t guarantee a better musical result.

    Work smarter, not harder, as they say. Trying to put a screw into the wall with your bare hands is “hard”, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea. Get a screwdriver!

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  10. Colin Holter

    So I’m a bit confused as to why anyone would still want to cling to the equally juvenile idea that music that required the composer to put in a lot of work is necessarily superior to music that might have come more easily.

    Music that requires less effort isn’t necessarily superior to music that comes quickly and without toil, but the possibility that it might be makes the toil worthwhile. I know how to write shitty music. I’d like to write something good, and the only way I know how to is to work harder. I envy you, though, DJA, because you seem to have mastered your craft without breaking a sweat. Would that we were all so lucky.

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  11. DJA

    Effortless mastery
    Yeah, Colin, I’m totally taking the easy way out by leading and writing all the music for my own 18-piece ensemble. Clearly this marks me as a shiftless layabout who is terminally allergic to making an effort.

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  12. Chris Becker

    Didn’t Morton Feldman freak out Lukas Foss during a visit to NYC so that when Foss visited Feldman in the children’s clothing factory his father ran – Feldman had his shirt off, hair messed up, and was standing behind and working a big steam press? The proverbial “artist in chains.”

    I don’t think he was trying to notate anything simultaneously…may not be true but I can easily imagine Feldman doing it just to mess with Foss.

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  13. rtanaka

    Great musicians usually make things look easy, but it’s usually the result of years and years of hard work. The whole point of practicing one’s craft is to improve what you’re doing over a period of time. But a lot of the times effort in itself doesn’t necessarily translate into progress…so you have to know how to spend your time wisely. Things are usually hard in the beginning, but if you’re looking for ways to get better, then improvement comes naturally over time.

    It’s often very difficult to know whether or not you’re getting anywhere, though, if you don’t at least have a couple of goals in place. That’s why being honest with one’s intentions I think is important, because it at least gives something to gauge the outcome of the work by. Then you can say you achieved something, or failed at something, got closer or got farther, etc. Sometimes it’s hard sometimes it isn’t, but at least you’ll learn something from the process every time, and thing should improve in an overall sense.

    If anything, this was sort of a lesson for myself that I found applying to other aspects of my life as well. Even if people ultimately decide not to do music for a living, these are the sorts of things that make doing it worthwhile.

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  14. jonrussell20

    Don’t try to be too rational about the compositional process. Sometimes you work your butt off and the final piece turns out great and it was all worth it; sometimes you work your butt off and the final piece sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it; sometimes your best music just pops out of nowhere and you don’t even know how it happened. It does what it will, and we are foolish to think we can have too much control over it. There is nothing inherently good about hard work; it is good if it produces something good. And sometimes letting the muse or whatever it is guide us, getting our own ego out of the way, results in the best product. Hard work is important, there’s no doubt about that, but never underestimate intuition as well. We are not scientists after all; we’re not trying to prove something.

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  15. jbunch

    Well then…
    Maybe you should show it to a few folks and see what their impressions are? Some of the best pieces I’ve written I did so in a weekend (thought + composition). Some of them took centuries, it seemed. Some of the worst pieces I’ve written took a year, some on the contrary, only took a week. I’m not sure that “writing time” is necessarily a good indication of quality. That’s a little like saying “that was a great piece, it was 25 minutes long!” I know you don’t make such simple translations, but it sounds to me that a similar logic is undergirding your fears about this piece. Every piece of music is a unique creation, I think it’s a mistake to attempt to generalize the process of writing in this way. Maybe that’s the lesson this piece had to teach you?

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  16. sgordon

    That’s what writing music has reduced me to: The suspicion that I might have done a good job is itself enough to threaten my mental health.

    No, that’s what academia has done to you. Don’t blame the music. Or, heck, don’t even blame academia – that’s what you’ve done to yourself.

    Music that requires less effort isn’t necessarily superior to music that comes quickly and without toil, but the possibility that it might be makes the toil worthwhile. I know how to write shitty music.

    And what makes you so sure that the music you worked harder on isn’t shitty?

    I’d like to write something good, and the only way I know how to is to work harder.

    Chalk that up to inexperience.

    I think the point being made here by many (which I’ll echo) is not so much debating whether or not work = good, but that the question itself is faulty. One bears no relation to the other, and it appears you are trying to force causation, or at least correlation.

    You’re so obsessed with the idea that more complexity, more work, more whatever you want to call it might make something better – but have you ever, once, considered that the opposite might, in fact, be the case? If so, you’ve never expressed it here. Did you ever stop to wonder, on any of those took-a-year-to-write pieces, if perhaps the answer might have been… scaling back? (gasp!) That’s the most common error of artists in every milieu.

    Consider your piece of music like a soup. You keep adding this and that and something else, thinking that something is going to take it over the top. And eventually, you put in too much. Or the wrong thing. And then you add yet more, to compensate, hoping to save it. And you ruin what was a perfectly nice pot of soup, when the answer was simply not to put all that shit in there in the first place.

    Perhaps I’m the wrong person to be responding here, since it’s fairly well known that I don’t much care for music (or any art) that visibly “tries too hard” – I find it all a bit gauche. I’ll take an elegantly simple statement from a Laurence Crane over a satanically difficult one from a Ferneyhough any day. But for what it’s worth I think you are, for all intents, beating yourself over the head with a logical fallacy – a “did you stop beating your wife?” question.

    So yes, a chill pill – perhaps a few of them – would be in order.

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  17. pgblu

    Consider your piece of music like a soup. You keep adding this and that and something else, thinking that something is going to take it over the top. And eventually, you put in too much. Or the wrong thing. And then you add yet more, to compensate, hoping to save it. And you ruin what was a perfectly nice pot of soup, when the answer was simply not to put all that shit in there in the first place.

    Photobucket

    Reply

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