Why Do We Do This?

Now that I’ve at least begun to explain what this interview book project is and how I’m going about it, I am now forced to go back to the completed interviews and start to discuss the questions I’ve been asking. This is something that I’ve put off for a very long time because each interview was so intense. Just keeping up with each subject was mentally exhausting, and by going back to the interviews I’m forced to consider the massive amount of work ahead of me when I get to the point of transcribing and editing them.

My first question in each interview has always been the same: “Why do you compose?” The initial reactions have been pretty consistent; after their eyes shrink back to normal size, the subject, whether or not they were anticipating this question, is now faced with baring their very reason for doing what they do to me and whomever else reads the book in the future. The fact that this simple question inspires such a ubiquitous pregnant pause with so many who are successful is a testament, I feel, to what makes composing music so mysterious and alluring—those who do it rarely have a simple, pat answer to such a query.

As one might expect, everyone has their own variation, but most responses could be categorized in one of three ways. The first is most personal: “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Even if they had the opportunity to pursue a career in another field, these composers are so drawn to the act of writing music that they can’t help themselves. While the sample of composers is still too small to make any categorical assumptions, a through-line with many of these composers is that they started composing at a very early age and had made up their minds earlier than most that this was what they were going to do with their lives.

The second response that I’ve encountered a lot is centered on the concept of expressing something from within to the world around them. This tended to be related to the first type because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else, but it was more specific in regards to their relationship with the audience; it wasn’t enough just to create something, but the creation had to be directed towards someone else, and it was in this relationship that each composer tended to break off into their own individual subsets.

While composers who started early in life might be hard-pressed to imagine doing anything else, the composers who started later on showed a proclivity to deadlines and commissions as the driving forces in their output. This was especially interesting to me once the pattern began to emerge because I found what they said extremely similar to my own experience (I didn’t begin to focus on writing concert music seriously until I was in my late 20s, and I tend to write much more consistently when I’ve got a steady stream of deadlines looming). These composers still enjoyed writing music, of course, but without the additional nudging of the performance or deadline in front of them, they’d get too distracted by the many other things going on in their lives and careers (another similarity to my own situation).

So I’m curious—why do you compose?

8 thoughts on “Why Do We Do This?

  1. muzition

    I write music because it allows me to express things that haven’t been expressed in existing music. (If that makes any sense.)

    Reply
  2. Armando

    The whole “expression” angle seems so obvious to me as to be simple minded, quite frankly. We composers are a bunch of narcissistic exhibitionists. That’s a given. What else you got?

    “Because it’s my job” is related to the answer I like to give, which is Olivier Messiaen’s: “you may as well ask an apple tree why it gives apples.” And yet, the more I consider this answer, the more inadequate it feels as well. It’s certainly not entirely true of me (and I’d wager that’s true for most of us). My job is actually a number of things of which composing is but a small part. Them’s the breaks for the freelancer.

    The answer I am more prone to give these days is one I’ve been pondering and developing for a few months now, and I’m not sure I’m completely clear on it yet. Composing (or, more fully, being a musician devoted to concert music, since I do so much more than just compose) to me is increasingly a political, or at least a polemical act. I am engaged in a dialogue with other artists seeking to mold my nation’s soul.

    And yet, that strikes me as a little naive as well, now that I see it in writing.

    Oh well!

    Reply
  3. pgblu

    The initial reactions have been pretty consistent; after their eyes shrink back to normal size, the subject, whether or not they were anticipating this question, is now faced with baring their very reason for doing what they do to me and whomever else reads the book in the future.

    What I’m about to say gets at the concerns I’ve mentioned previously: can anyone think of a contentious answer to this question? If I was asked this question, my eyes would go pretty wide too, and as they shrank back to normal size, I’d find myself thinking “Are we really going to play softball for the next [x] hours?”

    Make people sweat! That’s what an interview is for… unless you’re working for VOGUE.

    But since we’re just having fun now, I’ll give the most honest answer that I can: I have what I can only assume is undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder and composition is the only therapy that has worked.

    Reply
  4. colin holter

    This question came up in all or almost all of the interviews we did last summer; my answer, which was hardly the most profound, was that I don’t have the expertise to do anything else. Having paid the opportunity cost of graduate school, it would be a poor use of my finite resources to jump to the bottom of a new ladder. I imagine that most of the composers you’re interviewing are older than I am, so this is probably even truer for them than it is for me.

    Reply
  5. mdwcomposer

    Maybe my answer is a variation on #1: I compose because I love composing.

    I think it may have been sculptor Henry Moore who used the word “absorbedness” when talking about making art. Certainly nothing in my life is more absorbing than composing. There’s a comment by artist Louise Nevelson too, talking about creative work: It absorbs you totally and you absorb it totally. I also remember reading an interview with Woody Allen, where he talks about the most pleasurable part of the moviemaking process is when he’s alone with a legal pad, writing dialog, scenes and ideas. Interesting to me that it’s not the finished product.

    Something related that a poet friend recently said, when he and another writer were talking about why they wrote: Well, I enjoy writing these poems; I just hope people enjoy reading them

        — Mark Winges

    Reply

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