Appetite for Composing

Most composers I’ve met hunger for all kinds of things: for opportunities to create certain kinds of pieces, for recognition, for artistic growth, for the chance to impact the world, or for just a little more of that sweet cash-money to pay the bills. It’s fair to say that we’re all hungry for something, or we likely wouldn’t have undertaken the many labors necessary to develop our abilities to communicate in sound; yet at the same time, we’re all driven by individual tastes and appetites when it comes to where we invest our creative energy.

Some composers I’ve met have a voracious appetite when it comes to creating and collaborating, but find they have little stomach for the less exciting grunt work that’s often necessary in order for current creative work to lead to future projects. Conversely, I also know a lot of “operators” who seem to relish clerical and organizational tasks more so than the creative process. What whets one composer’s appetite often has little resemblance to the preferences and desires that drive others.

And just like our urge to eat, the appetite for composing tends to fluctuate throughout life, the current year, and even over the course of a single day. I know many composers who awaken hungry for composing and love working best in the morning, before the creative muse is clouded by the many other concerns of daily life. I find I usually wake up with a taste for catching up on emails, phone calls, and other busywork (like copying scores and mailing stacks of parts). Once these preliminaries are out of the way, I usually don’t get the urge to do some composing until the evening—there is something about being “off the clock” that makes me feel creative, and the preceding hours of busywork are just the thing to work up an appetite for writing music. Many artists speak of the normal ebb and flow of creative cycles or “seasons” that culminate with the “harvest” of finished work and a pronounced “fallow period” where there is a rest from the incessant intensity of creativity.

When I first started out composing in high school, I couldn’t get enough—I was hooked! With a few pieces under my belt and the focused scrutiny of academia, I noticed this hunger starting to diminish. Part of this was a natural and healthy result of increased introspection and the desire to figure out what I’d try to tackle next. At one point later in my twenties I was alarmed to find that my zest for composing had almost dried up—I still consciously wanted to compose, but that genuine feeling of hunger was, for a moment, close to flickering out. After the singular focus on composing during my school years, what I needed most at that moment was to take a break. Spending too much time composing is just like spending too much time eating; without cessation at least for a brief time, one doesn’t ever feel those pangs of hunger and therefore can’t find satisfaction. After taking some time off, my typical ravenous desire to compose returned.

Composers, what are you hungry for? What is it that most sustains you when it comes to composing, and what parts of the experience do you find less palatable? What factors seem to impact your “hunger” for creating music?

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6 thoughts on “Appetite for Composing

  1. Galen H. Brown

    I feel a lot like Dorothy Parker, who once said “I hate writing, but I love having written.” For me, 95% of composing is frustrating drudgery–mostly because my standards for myself are high enough that I spend most of my time writing the wrong notes. Of course, those high standards pay off with work that I’m proud of and excited about, and that result is worth the effort.

    I also look at this process from the perspective of reinforcement schedules in operant conditioning: The 5% of the time when I’m putting the right notes in the right places is thrilling, but I never know when it’s going to happen. This is a classic variable ratio schedule–the same type of schedule that creates gambling addiction.

    Reply
  2. Danvisconti

    Well said, Galen! For myself, I’ve noticed there’s a definitely a negative correlation between the composing sessions that are the happiest and most fulfilling and the composing sessions that end up leading to the best pieces.

    When I first started composing, I also wrote much faster–because I had no idea what I was doing of how lame some of my choices were. I’ve often pined after that lost innocence, at which time I pinch myself and recall that a probably wouldn’t be caught dead playing one of those early pieces for anyone…

    Reply
    1. Kieren MacMillan

      Hi Dan,

      For me, the happiest and most fulfilling composition sessions absolutely do end up leading to the best pieces — it’s just that the rate of output (i.e., minutes of music per hour of composition) is usually much lower during those sessions.

      Unfortunately, when I’m up against a deadline, and I need to crank out the frames, those are the sessions I find least happy and fulfilling — and the quality of the music often (though not always) suffers along with me.

      Great blog!
      Kieren.

      Reply
  3. Jason

    Thanks for this post. I just started a graduate degree in composition and feel a little disillusioned about composing in general, having lost the hunger a little bit (burnt out, maybe?). I want to compose but can’t bring myself to fight through that drudgery! Just gotta accept the biorhythm that comes with any creative endeavor – ups and downs are part of it.

    I think I am definitely one of the people that relish those clerical tasks though – I think that there isn’t anything more enjoyable in composing than sitting down with a score and a red pen and proofreading an already-written score.

    Reply
  4. Brighton

    I hate academia sometimes for taking the fun out of writing music. We start focusing on credibility, career considerations (ha!) and technical concerns and forget to play. Stravinsky had fun with notes and rhythms. We lesser men are all too often guilty of trying to be interesting.

    Reply
    1. Danvisconti

      Hi Brighton, I think there’s a lot of truth to that. At the same time, I can think of just as many examples of getting inspired by something I encountered in academia, and sometimes academia has prodded me to explore a different direction that I might not have encountered with exposure to concerts, visisting experts, and resources including libraries and electronic music studios.

      There are seasons for everything and there are several skills–orchestration and notation in particular–that I persoanlly could not have learned outside of an academic institution.

      I think we need plenty of time to play in the sandbox as well as some sound instruction on some of music’s more abstruse topics. In my mind, the danger is that many composers enter academia at 18, which for some is not too long after they’ve just started to compose. School is a great resource but one that is most helpful at the right time, and it can feel downright intrusive at the wrong time!

      Reply

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