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.