On Monday I participated in a very nice event at my alma mater that included readings of poetry and fiction, a photography presentation, and performances of two of my semi-recent compositions. As the readings unfolded, I felt slightly envious of the writers, who could simply hold their books and read to the audience themselves, and the photographer, whose wonderful pictures were exhibited in the art gallery. In contrast, presenting my music involved bringing four musicians to the campus (superb musicians who did a brilliant job), organizing a number of rehearsals, and, once we arrived, arranging for music stands, a PA system, cables, etc. And then—POOF!—the music was finished.
This is always how it happens. I know this, and yet there are still times when I feel surprised at how quickly the moments pass. It’s especially pronounced when I am performing myself; when I am working the laptop in one of my electroacoustic pieces, I am focused in such a way that I don’t actually “hear” the piece as the audience does. There have been many times when one of those performances ends, and I have to ask the other musicians, “How did it go?”
I am continually struck by the fleeting nature of a musical performance relative to the amount of human labor involved in making a single performance happen. This is not at all to suggest that making music is more work than writing a book or making works of visual art—they all involve a tremendous amount of effort. With artists who produce a physical product such as a book or a painting, however, there arrives a point at which the thing is done and can be directly experienced by nearly anyone from that point on. But in the time-based medium of music, there always has to be that additional layer of translation in linear time. Given that, when I’m composing something I always try to keep in mind the thought, “Okay, you have (for instance) eight minutes to say what you have to say, so make whatever that communication is as sparklingly crystal clear as you can!”
Sometimes if I think too hard on this issue, the whole scenario becomes completely ridiculous—like when you stare at a written word for a while and it suddenly looks as if it’s spelled all wrong—and I wonder, why on earth do this composing thing? It makes no sense. However, in the end, those moments of performance are for the musicians and the listeners to soak in. When someone says that a performance made them think about something in a different way, or gave them an idea, or that it made them forget about whatever was bothering them, I know that creating such ephemeral chunks of time in space is absolutely worth the effort. They are focused reminders that every single moment is unique.