In Praise of Deadlines
By David Smooke
Writing a 40-minute composition during the school year has spurred an effort of which I would have previously though myself incapable.
When I was nearing the final stages of my doctoral journey, I went to my advisor on my theory dissertation to structure my itinerary for completing my degree. As we discussed various possibilities for pushing my research and analysis forward, we focused on setting firm deadlines. He was insistent on choosing specific dates by which we should complete our tasks, claiming that projects “tend to expand to fill the time allotted for them.” This was my first encounter with Parkinson’s Law.
I have found that, for me, this is an immutable rule of the universe. Composing is a very difficult and exacting process, and it’s remarkably easy to avoid finalizing details of new pieces. It’s much easier to explore new sounds and to improvise at home, to enjoy creative moments rather than focusing on disciplined work. My teaching schedule keeps my days relatively structured, so that free time rarely arrives in the large chunks that are conducive to rigorous concentration. Unfinished tasks always stare accusingly from the corners of my desk, and the siren song of internet connectivity beckons at all hours.
My usual solution is to slow down during the school year and to use that time to store ideas so that I can be prolific during my breaks. As those periods approach, my excitement progressively increases. I ogle my composing pencil and look forward to hermitage. But this solution leaves me feeling like I could be doing more, that I could realize more of my musical ideas. The other problem with this composing schedule is that my pieces tend to shrink to fit the time allotted for working on them. The knowledge that several new compositions need to be completed can force each piece into a smaller frame, leaving room for the others to follow. And when I’m moving directly from one project into another, I’m less certain about the strength of my artistic choices, less sure about the quality.
This year, I’m trying something different. I committed to writing a 40-minute composition for three singers and string quartet during the school year. This is the longest piece on which I’ve ever embarked, and I only began it after the start of the fall semester, with the final deadline set for Sunday. Having this deadline has forced me to find time to compose, even when I thought that my days were already full. I’m fairly certain that my current schedule is unsustainable, but I’m also fairly certain that this deadline will have spurred an effort of which I would have though myself incapable.
Now, back to work!