During my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to meet the composer Conlon Nancarrow. He came to visit the school for a day, and a few music majors were invited to lunch with him. I was very excited, because his music was strange and interesting to me. Around the same time, I had heard Kyle Gann talk about analyzing Nancarrow’s works for player piano for the book he was writing, and about his adventures visiting Nancarrow in Mexico, so needless to say the idea of getting to talk to the composer himself was very intriguing!
As the small group sat at the lunch table and chatted (which turned out to be not so easy, given that Nancarrow was not a big conversationalist), I finally summoned the courage to ask him, “What is your music about?” He paused, looked at his plate and growled, “I write music about music.”
I still think about that statement often, because it is so far from what drives me to make music. While methods of weaving together notes and rhythms are fascinating and fun (and sometimes frustrating!), they are not ultimately what pull me to my composing table every day. What gets me there is the message that the techniques are meant to deliver—the story, the mood, the sonic landscape that will be evoked from the way those notes and rhythms are put together. I almost always have something extra-musical that I am attempting to deal with through the compositional process. Sometimes it is a story or a sense of place or a concept that I want to communicate to a listener, and occasionally it is simply something that I am trying to personally explore, and it is not necessarily crucial that the listener “gets” that particular message, or something different. For me, the most successful music comes from the things in life that haunt me until I compose them out of my system.
I find Nancarrow’s statement somewhat haunting because I wonder what it would feel like to have the music itself be the primary impetus for action. I’ve tried to experiment and compose that way, and while it’s interesting and fun for a while—in a crossword puzzle-working, Scrabble-playing kind of way—it doesn’t feel totally satisfying to me in the end. Nevertheless, I absolutely respect and admire the music of so many composers who approach their craft in that laser-focused-on-the-nuts-and-bolts sort of way. Even though my musical world view is situated in a very different place, every angle we take to making music is a way of experiencing life and sharing it with others.
What is it that drives you to compose and/or perform music? What pulls you to your work every day?