Beginnings

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 know this by now. I understand this. It’s predictable. And yet, every time I begin the process of translating vague notions of musical ideas into firm foundations that can support a full piece, I fall into the same emotional traps.

I tend to approach new pieces in a three-step process. First, I consider the general parameters of the piece. This is when I decide the instrumentation, the scope of the piece, some of the sounds, and the basic ideas that I want to express. Ideally, this pre-compositional phase can last years. I rarely write down any musings during this gestation period, preferring to let the project grow naturally and internally while I focus my attention on other things. The second phase begins when I turn my thoughts directly towards these nascent ideas. I play around with ideas, building improvisations and testing out new instrumental techniques. I explore various possibilities, trying to assay whether or not they can be productively mined. I slowly begin to consider how these fragmented sounds might be shaped into a whole. This middle step is when composing is the most fun. I feel like I’m engaged in pure play and can enjoy ideas as ideas, without worrying about how much they are capable of expressing or how interesting they are. It’s when I truly understand the meaning of the phrase “playing music.”

At some point, the pressure begins to increase and I am forced to move towards the third and final task: capturing ideas and creating the beginnings of a musical composition. This is when I force myself to eschew the surface play of the previous step and begin to dig beneath the surface, searching for the actual value buried within. Ideas that seemed so promising when enjoyed out of context pale in this light, revealing their lack of actual value. Invariably, I strike down path after path, each of which quickly reveals itself to be a dead end. The joy drains out of all the playful thoughts that delighted me when they appeared ephemeral, and all possibilities appear to lead nowhere. I begin to despair of ever finding a route towards the mineral veins that continue to tantalize me from below. For me, this period is the most difficult aspect of being a composer (non-concert division—the horror of sitting in an audience while hearing a premiere cannot be topped). Each time, I begin to despair, wondering if I will ever be able to create another composition.

This latter aspect of the process continually surprises me. I’ve been composing for a fairly long time now and have completed dozens of pieces, several of which I still believe are worth saving from the trash bin. I’ve gone through this process over and over again and intellectually, I understand how it works. And yet every time, I have the same emotional reaction: I find myself questioning the very possibility of composing. No matter how well I steel myself—how much I remind myself that beginnings are difficult—I forget this training in the moment and worry that the new music will remain hidden from me.

I find that the only solution is to keep digging away, to work at the material until, slowly, I begin to unearth small fragments that appear promising. These begin to serve as signposts, pointing towards the promise of a new piece. Sometimes these shards of ideas amass into substantial compositional material without my even noticing.

2 thoughts on “Beginnings

  1. Armando Bayolo

    Nice piece, David, as always.

    My experience is very similar, but I’ve found it’s changed as I’ve gotten older. When I was a student I could write a piece a month, if not more. Granted, there are very few pieces I wrote that way that I still like and even fewer of those, if any, do I still promote. Back then the process was a lot less painful and I could start pieces at the drop of a hat. As I’ve gotten older and more careful, I’ve found that the same thing you describe is true. Germination is nice and hopeful; starting is painful; the middle is perhaps even more painful and makes me wonder if I’m ever going to finish this blasted piece, let alone ever write again. I do find, though, that once I get past that wall and the piece has revealed itself to me (unless I’ve kept my formal plan from the first part of the process, something I almost always do but to which I seldom adhere religiously as a piece evolves) I find the final stage of completion to be almost euphoric and cathartic. (The moment of performance is not nearly as nerve wracking for me. By then, unless I’m one of the performers, nothing is up to me anymore and I don’t really see it as entirely my show, so I just relax and listen.)

    What I’m finding most difficult, having just finished a very large piece that cost me quite a bit of creative energy over a period of three or four months, is moving on to the next one, especially given that, as you pointed out last week, I, like you, need some time to decompress after a piece is done. I suppose I should enjoy the time to let the next project germinate a little bit, even if I don’t have the luxury of years.

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  2. Leon Shernoff

    Yes, there’s this play aspect to composition, but there’s also another aspect to it that has always seemed to me like walking out into a void and expecting a surface to materialize under your feet. The fear of taking those steps into the void, and the pain of the mental exertion required to make it happen often feel to me like holding your hand in a fire.

    I think that this sort of pain/fear is why so many composers have invented impersonal gizmos to generate material for them, or to give them less personally-responsible ways of deciding whether their material is “good” — gizmos like tone rows or chance operations.

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