The Experience of Composing

I’m working at the Yaddo artist community in Saratoga Springs, NY, and as is usually the case with such places, the most vital and stimulating moments come from interacting with artists working with other media. Oftentimes what is most interesting is the chance to learn something of what it feels like to work in worlds much different than my own, because the experience of being a composer is much different than (but not unrelated to) the experience of being a poet, playwright, or painter.

At dinner I related one of my composing idiosyncrasies: I need to separate the creative and critical impulses in order have the most satisfying work experience. This is because I am not the most confident type and am already prone to shooting down my own ideas, often before they have a chance to develop or form broader associations that might lead me to something more fruitful. While it’s true that a great deal of critical function goes into “brute” creativity (and also that there’s much creativity in generating relevant, provocative, and useful self-criticism), I find I do best when I allow each half of the process to bloom for a time on its own, unhindered by the concerns of the other. I need to generate a lot of ideas without stunting their early growth with too much specificity (and with nary a thought to their feasibility in performance), but I also need to be ruthless and shrewd in dispensing with (and editing) ideas that don’t make the cut even after I’ve allowed them their best shot.

One of my painter colleagues replied that whatever the strengths and merits of such an approach, it was one that by necessity would be ever foreign to her. As an artist working on canvases not much bigger than my tabloid-sized orchestra paper, she is constantly reminded of the presence and effect of the whole. Meanwhile, the apparent ease with which I can erect a (permeable) barrier between the kid-in-sandbox kind of creativity and a more removed critical questioning is perhaps related to the fact that one of my pages of orchestra score might express only ten seconds’ worth of musical material—hardly a situation conducive to grasping the whole in an immediate, visceral way.

For my painter colleague, the totality and unity of her creative experience is most emphasized, while the act of separating elements from the whole requires directed effort. Just as my experience of composing notated instrumental scores reflects the sense in which the particulate details of separate lines/rhythmic profiles/pages often are more readily present than the totality of the work. Indeed, as my music takes place within a prescribed block of time, I also am temporally removed from it on an additional level.

Without a doubt, the “composer experience” leaves an indelible mark on my work, behavior, and personality, just as the nature of the painting experience is bound to reverberate through my colleague’s life in myriad ways. I’m curious to hear from other composers (especially those who work in very different ways from myself) what your composing experience feels like and to what degree this experience has influenced your attitudes about work and art. Do you feel that your relationship with composing has colored other aspects of life?

To give one example of my own, my role as someone who effectively makes “blueprints” of performances often leads me to try and approach other art forms through discovering and relating to their own perceived schemata. To me, the drive to understand how something is put together—moreover, how it became put together—often supersedes a detailed apprehension of the experience at hand. This is usually a handicap as much as a help, and I have to work hard against my tendency to suppose “composerly” intent similar to my own experiences. My painter friend always asks me how I choose and “mix” the sounds on my “palette”, though, which strikes me as a useful way of thinking! What other ideas from different media might be helpfully applied to composing, and what lessons can we take from composing to the world beyond?

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