Sometimes we find what we’re good at by being bad at something else, first. In my case, the eventual recognition of composing as a path that might yield a developing dialogue came only after a few dead ends.
Although I spent time playing and studying instrumental performance equal to and exceeding the amount of time I have been composing, my relationships with instruments—violin, the electric guitar, and keyboard, to be exact—seemed doomed to plateau. Each time, it was the same: I had an average to above-average ability to divine the rudiments of playing an instrument, but once I’d acquired the ability to hack through real repertoire or give a live performance my sore lack of discipline kicked in, and my growth beyond that point remained stunted. From a young age, I had a promising ability to figure out whatever instrument was put in front of me, yet I would always fall apart once practicing became less focused on discovery and on the more rote (but equally necessary!) pursuit of control, intonation, and other elements whose mastery differentiates the hack from the serious student.
Each time, when this point of study was reached, I began to improvise cadences and then increasingly more ambitious sections of works I was studying. This was the crucial development which indicated that laziness might not be entirely to blame for my lack of discipline—perhaps my attitude was trying to tell me that I had gotten far from the kinds of problems that really interested and sustained me. This realization was what catapulted me into composing, and since then many of my pieces begin with a reexamination of the physical possibilities of acoustic instruments.
I’ve been particularly excited this week, as I’m writing for an ensemble including an instrument for which I’ve not yet written: the shruti box, a portable device similar to a harmonium that is frequently employed as a drone in Indian music. I very nearly settled for a software version of the same, but I’m very glad to be sitting with the actual shruti box that will be used in the performance. Had I relied on a synthesized version of the shruti sound, I almost certainly would have impressed the device into belting out the obligatory, long, unvaried drone—instead, now I’m sitting on the floor experimenting with the instrument’s surprising ability to produce subtly pulsed rhythms and diverse articulations…just like when I sat down with my first (1/4-scale) violin as a little kid, and found all kinds of sounds that I didn’t encounter when playing Go, Tell Aunt Rhody for my teacher.
When I now contemplate the way instrumental performance is currently being taught, I am disappointed that a frequently single-minded pursuit of “proper” technique and playing tends to shut out all these great, child-like impulses to experiment. Instead, pursuit of the “proper” way to play—as dictated by cultural tradition and current ensemble performance opportunities—comes to eclipse any real dialogue in which the myriad possibilities of the instrument are explored in themselves, for pure delight and personal expression. From the point of view of so-called “classical” instrumental study, these explorations are counterproductive diversions, mere illusions that distract from the holy grail of “solid” technique (which is frequently not-so-solid when confronting anything beyond common-practice traditions) and “good tone” (again, good only for a very, very narrow sliver of musical style).
So when I signed up for “violin lessons” as a kid, I had no idea that the implied classical regimen was merely a sliver of all possibilities—instead, this tiny sliver was represented as absolute and all-encompassing, and the percussive effects I was developing were relegated to the periphery, almost as if there were something distasteful about (literally) playing with an instrument.
Now, I’ve come to realize that it is really the other way around: that classical performance practice itself is peripheral to a larger and even older tradition of music-making.
The received wisdom of classical performance practice is simply one way among many, yet it is through direct exploration of sound (and apprehension of what kinds of sound excites and moves us) that performance practices came to be in the first place. While I have very great respect for those who take similar delight in the exploration of classical technique, I’m fortunate that my own false starts eventually led me back to the elements with which I formed my earliest musical bonds. More than mastery of classical, hard bop, or any other style (including the mask of my “own” musical voice), it’s the quest to discover all the ways instruments can sound (and be sounded!) that motivates my musical interest. Music is my way of expressing that curiosity about sound.