In her column here at NewMusicBox last week, Alexandra Gardner discussed the dissonance of disruptions to our daily life and how they can disturb our artistic lives. After dispensing much sage advice on how to lead a healthy life in the arts, she ended by asking readers how we overcome these obstacles in order to continue creating. My answer is this: it’s essential to learn enough about ourselves that we can truly give our best efforts, without pushing ourselves to the point of self-destruction.
Several years back, I was talking with an old friend from college who postulated that the one thread that held our diverse and very loose group together while we were in school was that each of us was exceptionally ambitious. He didn’t mean the typical forms of ambition in terms of career or monetary objectives, but rather was referring to a personal striving. Speaking for myself, I’ve always wanted to achieve absolute omniscience—to know exactly where that pesky electron is and how to predict where it will be next; to understand who the Octamom is and what methods Spiderman utilized to defeat her—in short, to know everything. As a composer, I want to write works that are utterly original and epically moving.
Of course, the former of those two ideals is absolutely unachievable, while the latter appears to require merely a complete dedication to the art of music (and a few other factors that I am continuing to attempt to figure out as well). So, in my mid-twenties, I began focusing solely on this second goal, with great determination. I realized that many of the composers who I most admired slept only four hours each night, utilizing their nearly-full days and nights to produce new musical creations. Thinking that this was an admirable quality, I attempted to train myself to survive on as little sleep as possible. Over time, I reduced my sleep time in half, in hopes of bestowing the gift of free time upon myself, time for composing. My experiment ended with a near-fatal bout of pericarditis followed by two years of exhaustion with little ability to concentrate as I healed. When I finally did heal, it was with a greater understanding of my own personal physical limitations.
While I still greatly admire and envy those people who consistently can work through the night, I know that it’s impossible for me to match their energy. Just as I cannot be a world-class marathoner (despite thousands of hours running while I was in my thirties and two marathons completed), I understand that I have physical limitations that circumscribe my allotted time for creating music. And yet my ambitions remain. I still want to create art that is moving.
The intimate knowledge of my personal physical limitations has provided some excellent benefits. When I reach the point of exhaustion, I know to rest. When I rest, I do so thoroughly—even if only for twenty minutes—and generally find that I am able to return to work re-energized and with creative ideas and solutions to vexing compositional problems. Sometimes, it’s very inconvenient to stop and to lay aside my projects, but necessity takes priority. I’ve been forced to learn to say “no” to exciting opportunities, and have delayed responding to others long enough that they disappeared. But I’ve also discovered in retrospect that I wasn’t prepared for the challenges presented by some of these, and I’ve realized that embarking on most of those projects would have eventually led to artistic failure. And while I’ve been slow in many respects, I also have found that I’ve been well-prepared for most of the projects that I’ve completed.
Sometimes the best way to do keep composing is to slow down, to accept our personal frailties, to admit that we’re exhausted and to forgive ourselves. Sometimes, we need a (figurative) Jewish grandmother to call us Bubeleh and to point out that we need a nap. It’s O.K.