Saturday, May 17, 2014

Turn, Turn, Turn

I suppose that I have spent the last 15 years or so turning nearly everything I have experienced, in one way or another, into music. My journey into serious composing began, once I had amassed the tools to do so, as a kind of chain-writing backlog of everything I experienced musically since childhood. After exhausting my backlog, which took about five years, I would turn pretty much everything I learned into a new piece.

I have come to a point where nothing of value seems to be coming out. Every time I sit down to write these days it comes up as a vague rehash of something I have already written, and it makes me feel pretty lousy. So I have decided to take a kind of sabbatical. It's a learning sabbatical, where I allow myself to read poetry without thinking about how I would set it to music, read novels without thinking about turning them into operas, and playing great music without trying to figure out what makes it great and how I might possibly absorb some of its greatness.

It has been about three weeks since I have decided it is perfectly fine to enjoy the musical world as a player and as a spectator rather than as a maker, and I have already learned a great deal about music and about myself as a result. My daily (and still very much under tempo) encounter with Beethoven at the piano is now an encounter with the composer on an emotional level rather than an encounter that results in intimidation. (Once I have gone through all the Beethoven Sonatas, I'm going to go through the Haydn and Mozart Sonatas again with fresh ears.)

My pre-sabbatical output is 77 compositions published by Subito, and 64 compositions that I have in the IMSLP. There's one more that I'll be putting in at the end of July, after it's performed by our Summer Strings orchestra. That makes 142 compositions (some of them long, like my so-far-unperformed operas, and some of them very short). I'm proud of the body of work I have produced at this point (if you click on the above links, you can see it in all its pre-sabbatical glory), and I am really enjoying the unburdened feeling of not having to produce more right now.

There seems to be more room in my head these days. I even sound better and am more engaged when I play the violin and the viola.

I suppose I have approached the work of being a composer in a kind of backwards (or back woods) way. I know I don't do enough (if anything) with the "business" end of composition, like trying to impress upon people how important it is for them to perform the music I have written. I'm lousy at business. I don't befriend people who have clout in the current musical world because of what they can do for me. I don't toot much of a horn (writing posts here is the best I can do, folks), and I seem to give opinions (on line and in print) that are not really in keeping with what people want to hear.

It's odd to see the changing of the seasons on the musical on-line world. Perhaps 50 people might glance at this post over the next few weeks or months. A few years ago it would have been at least 200, and many of the people reading would respond to what I wrote, either through comments or through another blog post.

We college instructors complain about the lack of engagement we see in our students, but those of us who haven't been students for decades are guilty of the same lack of engagement with the bits of information that flash across our screens, quickly seen, and quickly forgotten.

I hate to engage superficially in any way, and am horrified when I find myself doing so. It is very easy to slip into the habit of superficiality when so much of our daily interactions are accomplished through light-emitting devices.

I wonder, once the internet starts to slow down, and those of us who do not have the means to pay for a ticket to the fast lane, if we might reconsider alternative ways of interacting.


Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

"Every time I sit down to write these days it comes up as a vague rehash of something I have already written, and it makes me feel pretty lousy."

I'm a hobbyist composer, writing things for friends and students to play, and the number of my compositions is somewhere in the middle double digits, so my situation isn't really comparable to yours - but I know the feeling you describe in that quote.

What I did was to get my nerve up and ask Kyle Gann of the PostClassic blog if I could buy a composition lesson off him, and he agreed. I'd never before asked for a professional opinion of my work, but following Kyle for years, I felt whatever he had to say, positive or negative, would be interesting and insightful.

I sent him the YouTube links to two pieces I've put up, and he requested scores, which I sent. His response was terrific - "getting" what I've been up to and giving me some pointers on how to get further down the road I've chosen.

All of which is to say, if there's a composer you really admire, maybe try the same thing. The fresh perspectives really got me excited about composing again, without that nagging feeling of not really doing something new and fresh.

Elaine Fine said...

It's great that you asked Kyle Gann for lessons. I hope that relationship works well for you. I certainly have learned a great deal and have gotten a great deal of inspiration, support, and advice from many teachers, mentors, and friends. None of us, at whichever stage of the creative composing process we inhabit at any given time, are sources unto ourselves. Relationship is ultimately what music making and music writing is all about.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

"Relationship is ultimately what music making and music writing is all about."

Amen to that!

Anonymous said...

"I wonder, once the internet starts to slow down, and those of us who do not have the means to pay for a ticket to the fast lane, if we might reconsider alternative ways of interacting." Not being sure what a "ticket to the fast lane" is, the phrase "alternative ways of interacting" also confuses me. Not every composer has or will attain equal standing, as not every performer can. Perhaps one reason for the "superficial" engagement of which you write is that expectations are, on the one hand, too high because most people are clumped into a median place as regards abilities and achievement, and on the other hand suppressed by that seemingly modern message that bubbles up from the "Western civ has got to go" crowd. Individuality will never seem as big as the collected mass of lemmings, but when I think of the sometimes-disparaged Western canon in music, it seems all about individual achievement, individual abilities and the like which took art to the next level. We know that Bach was somewhat "old hat" by the time he died, Mozart was dumped in an anonymous grave, and many of the "great" composers never heard all their own opus well played, much less recorded, tweaked and made antiseptically neat. Perhaps longing after a place in the "fast lane" is an error? Emily Dickinson never was, and E. E. Cummings' "5" was named that for the major publishers who laughed him off. Someone you know well has been busy revitalizing Meier and Tietz, after all, and none of that can be called the "fast lane." Personally, given the choice between the fast lane and Frost's imagery of the "road not taken," I prefer the woods to the buzzing, seemingly-vital town of "hey, look at me." As an old Pacifica radio commentator used to say at the end of his insightful remarks, "persevere." The back woods are lovely this time of year. Even in a big city. After all, somewhere there is a musicologist digging up a forgotten masterpiece as we have this little exchange. Generations from now, if preserved, work will linger on while the hubbub of the "look at me" crowd will have been long gone. Work perseveres. we should too.

Elaine Fine said...

The fast Lane has only to do with the way the internet is probably changing: when those who pay more will have quicker on-line access. I agree totally with your sentiment regarding a fictional "fast Lane" in music, Anonymous. I'm sorry for the confusion!