Raising Music

When my parents fully understood that I was not especially interested in, er, fulfilling their grandparental urges (my brother has taken care of that quite well), they said, “That’s okay honey, we get it—your compositions are your babies!” That is pretty much the truth. I do tend to perceive my pieces as individual entities that I have nurtured and spent time caring for, each with its own personality. Some are easygoing, some are monstrous, some quiet, some loud and rambunctious. In the end I always try to dress them nicely and send them out into the world to make their own way. That is when they really grow up, with performances and recordings, and real-time interaction with performers and listeners. Recently I revised a composition—something I rarely do anymore, preferring to let them be what they are and move on—which absolutely had to happen (it’s a long story) in preparation for a performance next month. It felt an awful lot like having to bail a problem teenager out of jail!

Anyway, earlier this week David Smooke wrote a nice post about compositions that he considers “unlucky.” I totally know what he means by this, and I have some pieces that have never—in my opinion—lived up to their full potential. It doesn’t have so much to do with the number of performances received within a given amount of time, as it does with the musical content not—for whatever reason—”being all that it can be,” as the Army says. Going back later and attempting to tweak things sometimes works, but by that point I’ve usually realized that maybe I wasn’t the best parent to this piece of music, and that the music is what it is, deficits, scars, and all. Those pieces still have lives and still get performed, which sometimes makes me cringe a little, but if people like them and want to hang out with them, then so be it.

I hear a lot of composers say things like, “But that piece isn’t who I am now.” Well, who exactly are you now? You are the product of all of your experiences, good and bad, like it or not. Music changes because the composer changes, so why hide the previous incarnations of all that you are? Maybe you don’t “like” compositions that seem “old” now, but then you might not like your present composer self in ten years! Chances are, the best move for the health and well being of your catalog is to accept past work as much as possible.

Sometimes finished music just needs to stew for a while. Compositions often take time to pick up speed in terms of performances. Patience and tenacity are crucial here, because sometimes it takes years for a piece to gain enough steam that it gets performed regularly (whatever regularly means!). For instance, I have a quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano that I wrote in 1998, which was a totally legit commission by a fabulous ensemble, supported by a grant from a totally legit art organization. I was disappointed at first that it didn’t take off and get performed often and immediately, despite a fantastic premiere and mind-blowingly good review. Eventually I let that go, and kind of forgot about the piece as the recording sat patiently on my website. A couple of years ago I sent it in to a competition, thinking, “Oh, they’ll never choose this old thing,” and what do you know? It was one of the chosen works. In the past two years that piece has been performed far more than it ever was at the time that I wrote it. Would I write a piece like that again? Of course not—I’m a different person and composer than I was in 1998. But that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the music and willing to stand by it.

Composers are very quick to dismiss their “past selves” in the interest of giving what might be considered an accurate impression of the composer as s/he is in the moment. The only problem is that each moment passes so quickly! And in the words of some wise sage, the only thing we can really count on is change.

4 thoughts on “Raising Music

  1. Chip Michael

    I love this article. It really says how I feel about composing and some of my music. I don’t put them so much in the child role, but the process of writing changes as we change – and that change is aptly discussed here!

    Reply
  2. A. Campbell Payne

    Thanks for writing this! I just graduated school and I’m trying to find a way to confront all of my “juvenilia.” Most of it has never seen the light of day, and I was considering releasing everything just to sort of have a cathartic cleaning of the slate. This has totally inspired me to get my act together.

    Reply
  3. mclaren

    Of course, some of us strive for music of which we must say “That piece not isn’t who I am now, it isn’t who I could ever be!” For some of us that’s the entire goal in composing.

    Reply

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