Down the Pigeonhole

In composing, as in life, it’s all too easy to become boxed in by our past decisions in a way that makes personal change harder and harder as the years go by. Some of this is imagined, and it’s a composer’s prerogative to always seek out new stimuli and accept new challenges in order to ward against stagnation. But there are also external forces which conspire to define composers and lump their work into handy pigeonholes, and in my experience this doesn’t make our aforementioned inborn tendency toward a gradual narrowing of focus any easier to resist.

Composers can be pigeonholed by critics, colleagues, and geographic location, and situated along any axis—commercial/academic, minimalism/complexity, young upstart/old master—that seems handy at the time. How music journalists and gatekeepers adore these handy dichotomies! The best music most often eludes the grasp of these convenient labels, while other flavors of the month—usually, shining examples of X category or Y trait or Z way of working—receive attention and frequently favor by inciting strong reactions from professional partisans.

One of the easiest ways to pigeonhole a composer is to make assumptions based upon the types of ensembles for which he or she composes. There are increasingly few composers of my generation who can do it all, and this is not made easier by the fact that if and when a composer’s work is received with any amount of attention or success, people invariably want you to write more of the kind of music that worked so well in the first place—not exactly a recipe for avoiding stagnation!

Last year I made a studied decision to pivot into two areas of music with which I wasn’t yet well acquainted: vocal music and music for winds. I was a string player to begin with, and a few initial gigs with some exceptional string groups ensured that much of my subsequent music was written in response to requests from string groups. All of a sudden, I was in danger of getting stuck and decided to implement a new plan to help me pivot towards writing for different ensembles.

A year has passed and a little elbow grease has paid off: new gigs writing art songs, chants, and a choir piece are humming along, and this fall I’ll be writing a new piece for band (my first), commissioned by a consortium of ten college wind ensembles. After five years of writing for instruments and ensembles with which I was mostly comfortable, it’s going to be refreshing—and terrifying!—to spend so much time with genres of music (band and choir) that I know comparatively little about.

Of course I’ve been fast at work, studying the lessons of past masters and checking in for advice from luminaries like longtime Volti composer-in-residence Mark Winges, or “he’s so hot right now!” band and orchestra composer John Mackey. In fact, I sent John an email that literally began, “Dear John: I’ve just agreed to write for band. Help!” It’s so encouraging and helpful to have the support of other brilliant composers and mentors—many of whom I’ve met via my weekly column at NewMusicBox—because it makes me feel less foolish, awkward, and alone as I struggle to reach out for new experiences. Our best friends—our true friends—are the ones who refuse to limit us to who we are now, but who instead actively encourage us to engage in the process of becoming.

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