The Need for Speed

Speed of Light by jpctalbot on Flickr

The obsession that composers have with being prolific has always been an interesting and somewhat contentious issue for me. There is so much worth placed on how fast and how much a composer can produce in a given time period, as if to assume that a catalog bursting with a large number of pieces means that the composer is better, smarter, more dedicated, and more creative than her or his peers with shorter lists of works. Both composers who are prolific and those who are not have reasons for working at their own paces, and it seems that both options (not to mention those in between) can be valid. There has been life-altering music written at the speed of light, and also in the thickest molasses of slowness.

It’s probably safe to say that most of us feel a twinge of envy at the thought of J. S. Bach whipping out a cantata every week for two years running, or of Mozart writing 23 pieces—including two operas—in the year of his death, not to mention the lengthy, large ensemble-heavy catalogs of living composers such as John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, or Christopher Rouse. Requiring beginning composition students to write many short pieces very quickly as outlined by Rob Deemer and the several-day composing marathon for Tanglewood composition students described by John Harbison are both intended to push and shake composers into new creative spaces (a good thing), and to learn more about themselves and their relationship to their music (also a good thing). Although I have reservations about subjecting beginning students to this sort of activity, I can see how it could be beneficial is small doses. There are situations in which more really can be more, but not everyone thrives under such conditions, and they—the slower moving Varèses, Weberns and Crumbs of our time (be they male or female)—should not be put at a disadvantage by that fact. There are myriad ways to discover new creative processes—racing against deadlines is only one.

At the core, I think there are two issues at hand. First, all of the very productive composers mentioned above are anomalies. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be this kind of anomaly? The passionate, obsessed, insanely prolific composer has been romanticized since forever and, somewhere in there, imagination started to morph into expectation. In my mind this is more a statement on cultural assumptions about “the need for speed” than about creativity and art-making. While for some it may be helpful to attempt to emulate such models, viewing levels of production as a measure of anything beyond “units built” seems misguided.

The second issue, which is connected to the first, is that we all want composing to be easy, and writing quickly makes the process appear effortless. But the thing is, composing just isn’t easy. Not all the time, anyway. Somehow I doubt that Bach breezed through those cantatas every week without a drop of sweat or a hair out of place. While I do think that pushing one’s self to compose faster can help make the process go more smoothly, it is ultimately up to the individual to determine what suits his or her creative mojo. I know several composers who cranked out piece after piece in rapid succession when they were younger, who now go much slower and take more time to think about their compositional choices. Both methods worked for them at different times in their lives.

My hope is that all the composers out there will simply write the very best music possible, with enthusiasm and full attention, regardless of how fast or how slowly it happens.

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13 thoughts on “The Need for Speed

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Interesting topic.

    I’m always amazed of, for instance, Villa-Lobos who wrote very fast, and (in my opinion) always great music. But that doesn’t mean he was superior to, say, Varese or Falla.

    And those who take a lot of time revising his works and correcting details are not necessarily greater than such a prolific figure like our well-known Brazilian.

  2. Jeff Harrington

    In the art world, when a dead painter is being assessed for a prominent retrospective, one of the most telling criteria, I’ve learned, is quantity. We’ve tried for years to get attention for my mother-in-law’s brilliant paintings, but because she only painted around 20 works, it’s impossible. You just can’t get attention at all for you work, if it’s a limited amount of pieces. Unfortunately, I believe it’s the same story for music. If you don’t have a significant number of works, it really doesn’t matter how good you are, you’ll be forgotten.

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      < If you don’t have a significant number of works, it really doesn’t matter how good you are, you’ll be forgotten.>

      Really? Alex cites Varèse and Webern. Carl Ruggles, who released only 7 compositions into the world, is still performed and hailed as one of the important American mavericks of the early 20th century. The complete mélodies of Henri Duparc fit on a single LP (there’d be room for more on a CD, but there is no more) and yet he is still treasured by art song aficionados to this day. Staying in France, the works of Paul Dukas are still performed by orchestras, opera companies, etc. although there are very few of them. And then there’s the fabulous Clairs de lune, a four movement piano suite by Abel Decaux that is often thought to be his sole composition, which I heard not too long along on a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert. I actually tracked down one additional work by Decaux, a short piece for solo organ in a long out of print 19th century anthology of organ music. But still, he certainly wasn’t prolific.

      1. Jeff Harrington

        The problem with outliers like Varese and Webern is that they were important historically, too; important within the context of the invention of a radical new manner of creating music. Thus, they get extra interest props for their being there and doing that.

        I understand that everybody would prefer that quantity not matter, but face it, today – not even quality matters. The folks who are being recognized, performed regularly, today, are they the best?

        And the examples of Leonardo and Vermeer are good outliers, too, but how many artists that painted 20 paintings were there and how many are remembered?

    2. Steve

      In addition to Frank’s comment about composers, there are examples in the art world of painters with a limited number of works: Vermeer, da Vinci, just to name two. Of course, there is reception history there that I’m ignorant about, so perhaps they were forgotten/rediscovered over the hundreds of years that have elapsed since their death. But back to our most prolific Bach: it wasn’t until the mid-19th c. that his image/prestige was rehabilitated to something he never enjoyed in his own lifetime, writing all those cantatas. I’d say the forgotten/remembered thing is way more complex than number of works…there has to of course be _something_, but I’d say number of works as a variable is pretty far down on the list for being included in the canon.

      1. Frank J. Oteri

        Steve, thanks for mentioning Leonardo and Vermeer. A more recent and American visual artist who was not at all prolific but created really compelling work was the extraordinary Jay De Feo (1929-1989) whose paintings I have seen at the Whitney and LACMA.

        As for those 200 Bach sacred cantatas, truth be told, how frequently are most of them performed nowadays? In fact, it took until the early 1990s for all of them to finally be recorded. (I still remember lugging back the vinyl for the final 4 volumes of the Teldec Harnoncourt-Leonhardt series from Europe, since they were very difficult to find on LP in the USA and the CDs did not come with scores.) Whereas the Brandenburg Concertos are ubiquitous–perhaps in part because there are only six of them…

        1. Daniel Wolf


          Performances of the Bach cantatas and motets are ubiquitous in Germany, in formal settings perhaps the may reach even greater numbers than the concert instrumental work, but they are played principally in churches rather than secular concert halls, either in their functional context, as Lutheran/Evangelische church service music or as sacred-themed concerts in churches. They are sung and played both by amateur and professional soloists, choirs, and ensembles, and have also had a fixed place in Sunday morning radio broadcasts for decades. Larger traditional churches feature cycles through this repertoire, each week a different item. While the sacred vocal musics distribution through Germany does not appear to have the reach of the secular instrumental works, it is actually quite an achievement historically, given Bach’s own very local ambitions for a repertoire that was not published formally. [An even more interesting question, perhaps, regards the even larger repertoire of Cantatas by Telemann, only a tantalizingly small fraction of which is familiar today. Telemann was, in many ways the more stylistically forward-looking and adventurous composer and had more immediate influence, not least through wider publication, on the subsequent generation.]

      2. Jeff Harrington

        I’m not in any way suggesting that he who writes the most wins. I’m suggesting that if you’re writing great music, but not much of it, there’s a significant chance that you’ll be forgotten – especially these days with what, 200,000 composers in the United States.

        1. Frank J. Oteri

          This is a response to both Jeff and Daniel, but it appears underneath Jeff’s comment since either WordPress can’t double tag a comment or I can’t figure out how to do it. (It would probably require a three-dimensional rendering of the internet to properly visualize such a simultaneous response, but I digress….)

          Anyway, thrilled to hear from Daniel about the ubiquity of Bach cantatas in church services in Germany, though Bach composed only a handful of motets and Telemann deserves a wider hearing which seems to prove that the contrapositive of what I was writing in my initial response to Jeff is also true. That is to say, just as writing only a few works can sometimes get you canonically enshrined (e.g. Varèse, Webern and Ruggles in the pantheon of new music; Duparc in the pantheon of the art song, etc.), writing tons of music can sometimes be detrimental to entering the repertoire. Georg Philipp Telemann has been cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific composer of all time, but how much of his music actually gets performed nowadays? And I agree with Daniel that it’s a pity more is not done; there’s an amazing recording of his trio sonatas performed by Franz Bruggen that’s to die for. (I have a special fascination with Telemann because unlike most composers of his era who explored 1/4-comma mean-tone temperament, GPT preferred 1/6th comma which is de-facto 55-tone equal temperament; a chorale composed by him that exploits the full 55-tone gamut actually survives! I digress again…)

          But with over 1000 Telemann works to choose from, most folks opt to choose none. The same is true for the solo keyboard music of J.S. Bach’s extremely worthy son Carl Philipp Emanuel which is only now finally getting all recorded and published in modern editions – the project is still not complete and who else will take up the mantle once it is? Closer to our own time, Darius Milhaud, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Henry Cowell and Alan Hovhaness each composed over 1000 works. I would argue that more of their music is not performed in part because it is so ponderous to wade through it all. People like to receive short lists of accepted masterpieces. Perhaps there was an ulterior motive to Beethoven writing only nine symphonies ;)

      1. dB

        I think this is an example of the worlds of visual art and composition not being comparable. A painting can only be displayed at one place at a time, which limits the amount of “serious consideration” given to an painter’s work is significantly limited by how many pieces they have. Compositions don’t work the same way. Even if a composer only had one piece (or as is more likely the case, one extremely popular piece), there’s no limit to how many places it could be performed simultaneously. A composer can (and many do) get by with a very limited number of pieces that get performed over and over again. In this way, one or few pieces can establish a composer’s reputation (or historical significance) in a way that the same number of paintings would not.

  3. Mark Winges

    Another aspect to the “speed” question is which aspect of composing do each of us enjoy more: the process of messing with sound? Or the finished product itself? I know I’ve gotten a slower over the years simply because I realized how much I really like shoving notes around. It’s fun to stop, look, and decide to tinker more with a passage, or go back to a section. Pushing on to the end is ok, but once I’m at that point, there’s a certain amount of sadness: I don’t get to play anymore.


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