I’m one of those odd ducks who got into composition without ever studying instrumental performance. I took some piano and guitar lessons as a very young child and then eschewed all music study until I discovered my high school synthesizer studio. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed working with sound as a physical element, and this led me towards composing my own works for electronics. Encouragement from Jerome Margolis, my wonderful teacher, allowed me to write down some musical thoughts and begin the process of becoming a composer. My unusual background means that I’ve been able to make a career in music without ever thinking of myself as a performing musician.
I mention this history because last week I played a solo set as part of Phyllis Chen’s wonderfully exotic UnCaged Toy Piano Festival. I began by improvising on toy piano with looping pedal, and over time a structured piece of music emerged out of these explorations.
I was surprised to find that my relationship with this music is very different than my typical emotional response to my own music. When I compose, I reach a point at which I determine a final version of the piece. At that point, I either believe that any further revisions will begin to disintegrate the good ideas present in the music or I find myself up against the wall of a deadline, and the composition as scored at that moment becomes the artifact. Performers generally then bring that dormant seed to life, adding their own personal vision, but my work is (for the most part) done.
I found that as a performer, the piece is never completed. The more time I put towards the performance, the more I discovered about the music. I never reached the point of diminishing returns, or even the sense that I was approaching an asymptote. Instead, I realized that my response to the music I was creating was going to continue to change with each additional hour I was able to spend thinking about playing it. The process of learning the music would never stop.
The best performers I know are also inveterate perfectionists, a fact that surely creates a great deal of emotional difficulty. Before they would agree to venture onto the stage, they have a clear picture of their ideal performance, what they intend to convey. Paradoxically, our human frailty will never allow any of us to achieve that singular vision. Adding to the difficulty of the musician’s life is the fact that their view of exactly what constitutes the Platonic ideal performance will inevitably shift as they continue studying and returning to the same works over time.
I imagine that this paradigm—especially the aspect that allows for them to continue approaching the same works in new ways—is central to most musician’s love for music. I also imagine that this pursuit of an unachievable Utopia must be eternally frustrating. As a composer, I remain ever hopeful that the next piece will be the one that expresses exactly what I would like to hear. This (perhaps vainglorious) hope allows me to continue putting pencil to paper. Were I fully cognizant and emotionally resigned to a certainty that my compositions will never reflect my ideal vision, I wonder if I could continue creating new work.
Having walked a short distance in performer’s shoes—which actually were, in my case, bare feet due to the necessity of pressing small buttons with my toes—I’m left with even greater awe for those perfectionists who can somehow find the generosity to allow us to listen to them as they work towards their unachievable ideals.