Music is Bigger Than Any One of Us

Missing Pastry

A composer colleague was recently talking about removing compositions from her catalog; she stated that when pieces from many years ago just don’t make the cut in her mind anymore, out they go, and she repeats this process of culling older pieces every few years. Plenty of composers do this (I certainly have), and I understand that we all want to feel as if our stable of compositions represents who we are as artists in the best possible light.

But sometimes I wonder: Are we really the best judges as far as what should and should not be shared with the outside world when it comes to our own music? Are our present selves overly critical of the pieces our past selves have labored over? What is the real purpose behind our attempts to so closely control how, when, and what part of our creative output reaches beyond our individual perimeters?

These questions are on my mind because of a surprising occurrence that revolves around a composition of my own with which I have a somewhat fraught relationship. In a nutshell, I’m not sure I really believe in the piece anymore—it’s not very old, but still—and I have been seriously considering just making it go away. However, last week I received a quite unexpected email from a young musician who ordered the piece several months ago and recently performed it with her friends on her senior recital. She wrote about how much she felt that the music reflected who she has become as a person, and about how the process of rehearsing the music brought all of the musicians closer together because they found it to be a satisfying mix of difficult-yet-fun-to-play once they got the gist of it. The message was so heartfelt that I started to tear up, and when I got to the end of the email to find a photo of her at graduation, that was it; I sat on the staircase holding my smartphone early that morning and cried like a baby. Knowing that another person has been touched by something you created is a reward that is just as—if not more—satisfying than any of the composer awards that so many of us covet.

As Claire Chase states in her convocation address to the graduating class of Northwestern University, music changes us, and music is so much bigger than any one of us. With those ideas in mind, who are we to try to manipulate the perception of our creative output? What is, or could be missed by our clearing out what we see as blemishes in our catalogs? Is it possible to consider that even though you think it’s not so hot, it will rock the world of another musician or a listener? Would you change your mind about the piece if you knew that it would? One never knows…

I still have a “complicated” relationship with that piece, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel 100% comfortable with it, for a number of reasons. But am I going to strike it from my catalog? Not yet. Maybe not ever. For now, that music and I will simply agree to disagree. And the rest of the world can make up it’s own mind about it.

8 thoughts on “Music is Bigger Than Any One of Us

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Good point, Alex!

    Is very common that composers feel awkward about very old compositions. But uneven youthful works are part of one artist’s development.

    And sometimes of course youthful works, or pieces that the composer wasn’t happy at all with, can reach the sensibility of the listener.

    A composer friend of mine said to me: “One’s compositions are like your children. One can have children that are not so pretty, but you love them anyway because they are your children!”.

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  2. Nickitas Demos

    This is a lovely piece, Alexandra. I have struggled, as many of us do, with what to keep in the catalog and what to remove. I too am coming to realize that I might not be the best judge of my own music. Your blog caused me to remember a piece that I wrote to simply fill up time on my doctoral recital. I thought nothing of this work (it wasn’t even performed all that well on the recital) and am still unsatisfied with it. However it really resonated years later with a professional player who ended up recording the piece on my first CD release. There are, of course, many other works I consider quite wonderful that get yawns at performances. I’m beginning to think that the best course of action is to simply keep everything and make it all available. Thank you for helping me to understand that this course may not be taken out of hubris. Quite the contrary! Maybe it’s best to include all pieces in my catalog because I’m simply not the best person to decide what belongs there!

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  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Nice essay indeed, Alex.

    I leave everything available. I once thought it was worth writing down, so I don’t second-guess myself. Pieces long past have been plucked from my catalog and have been performed with great excitement.

    A year or so ago I found YouTube videos of my early extended voice performance pieces done by groups two generations younger than me. It’s actually cool to have earlier work validated like that.

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  4. Elliott McKinley

    What a nice story and very timely for me in terms of content. Whilst recently moving, I began to once again consider pruning my catalog, and fretting over the task. Perhaps I shall leave the pieces where they lie… Pun intended!

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  5. Kyle Gann

    I find that, in any given year, I’m embarrassed by pieces I wrote ten years beforehand, but pieces I wrote twenty years before are a lot better than I remembered.

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  6. Mark Winges

    Very nice writing, Alexandra.

    I have another reason for leaving things as they are: the cleanup, the worry over whether to remove a work, the related activities for doing so; all that time could be better spent composing, revising the work that hasn’t gone out yet, or at the very least, perfecting my pancake-making skills. Besides, who am I to deprive some future musicologist the opportunity for a paycheck that sorting over the detritus of the 20th / 21st century would provide?

    In my opinion, we’re never the best judge of our own work in many ways. I also think we composers are all control freaks anyway; I for one need the occasional lesson in “lighten up”.

    – Mark Winges

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  7. Phil

    It’s hard to buy any of this when I hear 20-somethings talking up a storm about the latest mudpie inspiration they’ve thrown up on SoundCloud.

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  8. George

    I think that the desire to “overlook the history” is
    somehow related with composers self – representation or experience
    of a self. The musical work functions as a mirror that reflects
    some features of a self and sometimes this may be the features that
    don’t allow composer to view self as an ideal subject. So in my
    opinion by excluding old musical works the creator distances from
    parts of himself that he don’t view as part of his present
    identity. This process of excluding something form the past is very
    common in a everyday life – we don’t like ourselves in old photos
    or how sounds our recorded voice in the childhood and other things
    that now puts our identity into question or in other words that
    doesn’t coincides with our present identity, present view of self
    and memories about past that are influenced by our present
    experience of a self. This overlooking of the old stuff prevents
    subject from anxiety that originates in viewing himself as
    fragmented being.

    Reply

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