The Why of It All
Teaching at a conservatory, most of the students I encounter are deeply invested in continuing the orchestral tradition. They spend countless hours honing their craft in order to produce the most expressive tone possible on their instruments. They immerse themselves in issues of performance practice for music of previous centuries and attempt to engender a hermeneutic understanding of this music in order to perform it at a higher level. And when these students aren’t working, they generally listen to Lady Gaga or Muse.
I relate to this experience. At their age, I was attempting to compose experimental music for chamber ensembles while obsessing over the rock music of my era. Eventually, I came to believe that it was essentially dishonest for me to write music that was aesthetically unrelated to that which I enjoyed at home. At the time, my solution was to divest myself from rock in lieu of the music I thought I should be consuming instead. This allowed me to fill many of the lacunae in my repertoire knowledge and for a short time I was able to reconcile my creations with my listening. Of course, this period didn’t last long and I found myself relapsing towards the music I was trying to avoid. As with many other composers of my generation, eventually I accepted my personal tastes and began attempting to write music that reflected the divided nature of my obsessions.
Even so, at the time I neglected to ask myself the questions that now seem most important to me: Why did I want to write chamber music (or orchestral music) in the first place? Why not focus on starting a band? Why create notated music for other people to play instead of working on electronica in a home studio? Why write music for theater (as I did) but not for films? What about video game music? Installation art?
These are exactly the questions that I hope beginning composers will address. Except for the first, every one of these options has a clear built-in audience. All except the first have reasonable (albeit difficult) career paths available. The first option is the only one where the colleagues involved in the final music making might balk at the thought of working on new repertoire. And there are dozens of other musical fields that the budding composer might explore that don’t even enter into my thinking. Indeed, the more one considers all the options, the more reasons one can find for choosing any option other than creating music for orchestral instruments. And yet, thousands upon thousands of us chose exactly that option.
When we have a compositional vision, nothing will stop us from working to achieve that vision. I would just hope that we would question our basic assumptions in order to have open eyes as we chose an artistic path. Personally, I return to these questions on a regular basis and find that my answers have shifted over time—both my reasons for following the paths I’ve followed, and the options I’ve pursued. I still have yet to write for video games, but who knows what the future will bring!