Articles by David Smooke
When I was working towards my master’s degree, one of my composition teachers loved helping me start new pieces. As I was coming up with ideas for the next project, our lessons would be excitingly animated. He would ask me to question all of my basic assumptions and would direct me towards possibilities that I never could have seen myself.
Beginnings are difficult. Even for a column like this, I tend to delete four or five versions of the opening paragraph before feeling comfortable with the thrust of my ideas, before the momentum can carry forward into complete thoughts. When working on a new composition, the problems increase exponentially, often resulting in literally dozens of false starts as I launch into a new work.
I wonder whether the training-peak-recovery cycle of marathon runners and other athletes would benefit performing musicians. It appears to me that the technical demands of musical instruments are very similar to those of world-class athletes. The basic technique for every instrument requires at least some element of strength and stamina, and over time most musicians physiologically adapt to better suit their instrument.
It can be difficult for artists to truly embrace the fact that their work may contain multiple meanings. We are constantly reaching towards clarity of expression, towards music that exactly conveys our initial impetus. However, music is an inherently ambiguous art form in that it only can convey specific denotative meaning through evoking associative meaning.
Over time, I’ve come to realize how special the relationship between composer and musician truly can be. There are a huge number of performers who will work tirelessly towards realizing the intrinsic artistic vision of the composer while also adding elements of their personality as layers of meaning embedded within the final product. When this sort of relationship develops, the result is far greater than the sum of its parts.
One of the quandaries faced by today’s composers that seemed simpler a generation or two ago is how to distribute our scores. Previously, the established publishers were the only viable method for ensuring that our music reached interested parties and for producing beautifully engraved scores. Now, music notation software allows anyone to create scores that rival professionally typeset ones in their aesthetic appeal.
Often, when I’m stuck while beginning a new project, I find myself returning to the above quote. Somehow, in two very short sentences, Takemitsu summarizes many of what I believe are the most important elements of music composition. A single sound that can confront silence itself? This would be as impossible as the creation of true silence.
As artists, what should we preserve and what should we jettison?
I would ask us to begin to earn back our place at the table through a serious engagement with the many fields of art beyond music. If we truly want to be part of the discussion of art today, we should be prepared to speak languages other than our own.
As a student, I neglected to ask myself the questions that now seem most important to me.