Author: David Smooke

Performers and Composers

The power dynamic between composers and performers in the classical music world fascinates me. Of course, people who make a living playing pre-written music need those scores or they won’t have any repertoire; however, many of these musicians feel that the heart of their repertoire lies smack dab in the middle of the classical era through the 19th century. We continue to schedule concerts filled with the glorious works of Mozart and Beethoven because those pieces endure as fascinating and beautiful, and many performers happily remain ensconced in the music of that era for their entire careers.

Meanwhile, every year thousands upon thousands of composers are inspired to create new pieces. A simple application of basic economic theory tells us that when the supply remains high despite reduced demand, the product loses value, and this exact situation challenges the new music community. Every few months, new competitions with arcane rules, inadequate prizes, and high entry fees are created. Some composers complain but many more enter in hopes of having a new award for their biography. One of my mantras in these situations has become: no one ever went broke underestimating the desperation of composers.

But even in these seemingly dire days, many performers want to advocate for the music of their time. Numerous avenues exist for those who want to commission new works but lack the immediate resources that would allow them to adequately compensate the composer, including grants, substituting guaranteed multiple performances at accredited venues for an up-front fee, and—in a process eloquently described by Dana Jessen—consortium commissions. Others exert their energy towards continuing vivification of preexisting works, using their concerts to advocate for those pieces that they know move them.

If you are among this latter group, first, thank you. Your work allows music to live beyond the premiere and to grow through multiple interpretations. You clearly are doing this because you love this repertoire, and your advocacy is essential to us. The good news is that most composers recognize this fact and want to work with you in order to make your experience, and that of the audience, as gratifying as possible.

With that in mind, the best thing you can do before you perform a piece by a living composer is to inform that composer of your plans. Even composers who appear to be too “important” or “famous” to care about your concert might be excited about your event for one of many reasons that wouldn’t immediately be apparent from a distance: it might be a favorite work of theirs that is rarely performed, they might be planning to visit your town on that date anyway, they might have an obscure tie to your community about which you are unaware but which would allow them to help draw audiences. Sometimes, the composer might be able to attend your concert or to coach you privately before the performance. Another benefit you might gain from attempting to contact the composer is that they might help you to obtain a score for a piece that you’re having difficulty tracking down.

After your concert, you can help by asking if the composers would like a copy of your program and a recording. The program itself can be extremely useful if your performance was held in a concert space registered with BMI or ASCAP, allowing the composers to collect appropriate royalty payments for the use of their music at the event. And the recording can be an essential tool for composers who want to get others excited about their music. If you gave a premiere, then you know that yours is likely the only recording of that piece in existence and is therefore the only way for the composer to share the piece with additional performers. Surprisingly, due to ambient noise, odd venues without dedicated recording devices, odd slip-ups, and other factors beyond everyone’s control, composers often lack adequate recordings of relatively old pieces with broad performance histories.

We appreciate the advocacy that you do on our behalf and understand that you don’t need to play new music in order to have a career. We want to work together with you in order to help spread the word about our music and your performances.

Music As Performance Art (Part 2 of 2)

[The following is a continuation of a thread that I began last week.]

Let’s say you’re talking to people you have just met and you tell them that you’re going to the opera that night. Unless they are classical musicians themselves, chances are fairly good that their heads will immediately be filled with cartoonish imagery of women in Viking hats screeching high notes in foreign languages. In short, their vision will be of something cold and incomprehensible, the most arcane of the fine arts.

The origins of modern opera lie in late 16th-century Florence, where a group of men attempted to revive and update authentic ancient Greek theatrical traditions. In these new versions of old dramatic forms, everything would be sung, and the great stories could be performed for contemporary audiences. This new hybrid genre enjoyed great success as popular entertainment. Patrons would eat dinner, play cards, and otherwise amuse themselves with the operatic performance as backdrop, much in the way that people today might watch television. Often, the audience members would attend the same show for several consecutive nights, with the performance functioning as the accompaniment to their more important social activities. In 19th-century Italy, opera ruled as the most popular of all forms of entertainment. Gondoliers in Venice sing operatic arias today, because those were the most well known songs at the time that their traditions became ossified as part of the tourist trade.

In large part, the great popularity of opera derived from its function as spectacle. Elaborate productions involving specially designed machinery served to enchant and entertain. When combined with archetypical (proven over time? clichéd?) plots and beautiful music, the experience could be transfixing and transformative. As opera’s popularity increased, a scenic arms race of sorts took hold that rivaled the rise in computer effects in today’s Hollywood movies, necessitating ever more special stage machinations in order to astonish the more technically sophisticated audiences.

Rock and roll has always been spectacle as well. The appeal of Elvis was in part due to his sound and in part due to his look and unique dancing style. As amplification technology improved and bands began playing to stadiums and larger audiences, they developed new lighting technology and multi-million dollar stage sets. Very quickly, bands like The Who realized that their performances were walking a very narrow line, allowing them to release Tommy as a “rock opera.” While artists like Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa continued this rock opera tradition, others, including Queen and Parliament, were creating stage shows with characters and plots, elaborate machinery, and many of the other hallmarks of the grand operatic tradition but without reference to their performances as opera. These musicians understood that the concert experience is equal parts aural and visual for those immersed in the experience.

More and more, experimental music performances are applying these concepts in order to create strong concert experiences. Ensembles are bringing this music into club spaces, incorporating video projection into their shows, and are even staging the movement of standard repertoire pieces. For two generations, composers have added staging directions to their scores, whether as simple as Crumb’s call for half masks and blue lighting for his Vox Balaenae or as complex as the movement directions in Harrison Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre. These staging elements can provide an additional abstract layer of interest that works to focus attention on the stage, to hold audience members’ attention but without providing specific semantic meaning outside of the musical argument. In so doing, staging elements can heighten the concert experience and augment the emotional impact of the music.

As a composer, one of my goals is to follow the lead of generations of rock stars towards considering musical performance as an inherently theatrical art form. From a compositional standpoint, this can function subtly through scoring for specific ensembles and playing techniques that require changing the relationship between the performer’s body and the instrument. This can also function clearly through scores that specify directions for movements, stage setup, and multimedia elements.

While this performance art owes a great debt to opera, it’s not truly a continuation of the operatic tradition. These pieces might use vocalists, but while embracing the abstract expression of wordless texts that can explore the full gamut of possible human sounds. Instead of linear—or even nonlinear—plots, the dramatic throughline can arise directly from the musical one. This blurring of the boundaries between musical performance and theatrical performance can create a new paradigm for dramatic performances without recourse to specific meaning, where the musical meaning itself creates the drama. By so doing, it can enhance new music’s capacity for expressiveness and allow experimental music to reach towards those interested listeners who grew up loving the great rock stage shows.

Music As Performance Art (Part 1 of 2)

Musical performance is an inherently theatrical experience. Like all performance art, its paradigms evolved from the religious ritual and community meetings that were conducted publicly on the edge of towns where people gathered, at the crossroads. Part of the enjoyment we take in live renditions of our favorite music derives from the rituals surrounding these shows. The arena rock concert experience begins with memorabilia purchases before settling into seats to wallow in an immersive multimedia spectacular. Club shows generally involve holding beverages while standing amid a tightly packed crowd of like-minded spectators. We time our arrival knowing that the opening acts won’t begin playing until well after the announced starting time and if we want to hear the headlining act we’ll need to wait several hours. The musicians array themselves across the stage in a predetermined order, with the singer nearly always placed front and center and the guitarist commanding a wide swath of downstage right territory while the bassist and other instrumentalists fade somewhat into the stage left background. Intense amplification allows the sound to envelop us so that our cheers and shouting barely register with our immediate neighbors. The experience is all encompassing and communal.

For people who grew up going to rock concerts, the classical concert experience can be a bit difficult to figure out. The performances start on time and latecomers are not welcomed. Instead of showing appreciation by shouting and cheering vociferously as often as possible and whenever the players launch into a personal favorite, the delicacy of the music forces the audience into such complete silence that even shifting in one’s seat or slightly rustling a program can disturb people several rows away. Singing along with the performers is absolutely verboten. The instrumentalists might stop and retune in the middle of a piece, but anyone who claps in these spots risks ridicule from others. These artists dress like waiters in a fancy restaurant, a costume reflecting their status as servants to the music created by long-dead composers, who were often employed as domestics in ancient courts themselves. All of these traditions developed over hundreds of years, and, while they remain very much intact in the orchestral world, few experimental ensembles abide by most of them. Instead, if you’re interested in hearing acoustic instruments create odd sounds, you’re more likely to hear that in a bar performed by people dressed like … people.

When I first began to explore experimental music, I found one aspect of the classical performance tradition absolutely thrilling and far superior to rock shows: the relationship between the physical gestures of the musician and the sound created. While rock guitarists might run around the stage and whirl their arms like windmills, these antics are extraneous to the sound itself; the strength of the chord derives from the volume setting on the amplifier rather than the size of the windup before the strum. Conversely, the body control needed to make a violin scream or whisper is immediately apparent to the acoustic audience, even to my untrained eyes. When I discovered the music of George Crumb—whose piece Black Angels asks the members of a string quartet to use a wide variety of techniques to get unusual sounds, while also having them play percussion instruments and vocalize—I could viscerally relate to the relationship between the physical gestures of the performers and the incredible variety of absolutely beautiful sounds they produced. I knew I was hooked.

I’ve always been drawn to musicians who think of themselves as performance artists, who consider the staging as an integral part of the listening experience. The first album I remember buying for myself was Double Platinum by Kiss, a purchase that I made because their costumes comforted me due to their resemblance to cartoons. As I moved into high school, I discovered Peter Gabriel and his penchant for donning outfits expressing the texts of his songs. He led me to Laurie Anderson and the idea of “performance art.” David Byrne and his big suit served as a gateway to Brian Eno and also the stage director Robert Wilson, who in turn led me to his collaborative partner, the composer Philip Glass. In Glass and later Meredith Monk, I discovered a new conception of the term opera.

[Next week: Incorporating the influence of rock and opera into experimental music performances]

The Role of Analysis

Yesterday, a friend and colleague posed the following question to a group of composers: “How important do you feel analysis of your work is for its performance?” As someone who has given this issue a great deal of thought, I was happy to weigh in with my opinions; I’m hoping that NewMusicBox readers might have different takes on this issue and will share their thoughts in the comments section.

Personally, I believe that analysis is essential in that it helps performers to differentiate between essential compositional details and those areas where they can take liberties. I want each person who takes the time to engage with my works to forge their own path through the music and to create a unique interpretation. The challenge is that music notation can be an insufficient guide in directing them towards the aspects of the score that lend themselves to subtle deviations from the notes on the page. For example, some microtonal areas of my pieces must be exactly tuned in order to create a specific harmony with its subtle colorations, while I design other similarly notated passages in order to express a deviation from the equal tempered norm without expecting that the resulting harmonies will be precisely realized. Generally, a cursory analysis of the speed of the gestures along with their relative frequency and relationship to the surrounding material suffices to help distinguish between gestures that require exactitude from those that allow for more variance.

I also am wholly convinced of the stupidity of composers when it comes to our own works. When we create new pieces, we need to focus on microscopic details as we select the little black dots that best convey our grand emotional aspirations. This myopic approach ideally allows us to construct compositions in which all parts relate beautifully to the whole while expressing something greater than the sum of these constituent elements. No matter how carefully we consider all of the specific components of our compositions, once these little worlds leave our desks other people will invariably discover relationships that had eluded our initial understanding. In less successful works, our carefully hidden ciphers will be orphaned by a lack of interest in unveiling their underlying design. In more successful works, the efficacy of the whole will far surpass the sum of the systems on which it is based. In either instance, the ability of the final product to convey its own message functionally obliterates the intent of the composer. The music speaks for itself.

To me, the best collaborations are with those performers who learn enough about my music to create their own unique interpretation. As I compose a new work, I generally hold a single performance in my head, and I hope that the premiere will convey that vision. After the premiere, I hope that performers will be able to express their own thoughts about the piece, within the framework of my composition. I treasure those moments when I feel that a work that I created can be a vehicle for communicating someone else’s inner life. I believe that effective analysis is the best path for determining how best to remain true to the composition itself while creating a new work of art through each performance.

What Else Would I Do?

With the sad loss of Elliott Carter last week, I keep reflecting on my favorite aspect of his career: that he kept producing new music throughout his life. Instead of retiring and resting, Carter became ever more prolific throughout his 90s and 100s. When I attended the American premiere of his opera What Next? in 2000, I thought that this would be my last opportunity to witness the unveiling of a major new work by this iconic composer. Rarely have I been so overjoyed at having an assumption of mine proven so utterly incorrect.

Composers rarely retire. When we are fortunate enough to live into a ripe dotage, we generally continue to write for as long as our strength allows. Although there have been exceptions like Rossini and Sibelius*, most composers continue to create new works for as long as they are capable. To us, the act of producing music isn’t a job, it’s life itself.

Recently, a doctor was discussing methods for reducing occupational stress with an artist friend of mine. The physician asked what the artist would do if she no longer needed to work. “Produce more art” was her response. The doctor suggested that perhaps she hadn’t understood the question, and that this was in a world where she didn’t have to work and could pursue any of the various activities in which people often engage post retirement: travel, sports, gardening, hobbies. Now my friend was confused. Why would she want to do any of these other things if she had more time to create?

Artists do not recognize a distinction between our vocation and avocation. We organize our lives in order to have more time to pursue our creative objectives, and consider every aspect of our existence as feeding into our artistic output. When we travel or engage in a hobby, it’s in order to learn more about the world, knowledge that we utilize in order to bolster our expressive output. In a sense, we can never truly relax because some part of our mind is constantly thinking about current or upcoming projects.

Since I learned of my friend’s visit to the doctor, I’ve been pondering both the question and her answer. I would like to see more of the world and also would like to have the time to return to long distance running or even to go see more movies. And yet all of these other activities would obviously be secondary to creating music, the central activity that I intend to pursue for as long as I am able. For me, every other venture appears trifling when compared to music. At this point I can’t even imagine any other life. What else would I do?

*Philip Roth’s recent announcement notwithstanding, it’s also a relatively rare phenomenon among writers.


Like most people who write music, I have invested a large portion of my life in learning the craft of composition. In order to create the best work possible, I have studied how different instruments produce noise and how their repertoire exploits those sounds; the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of works by a variety of musicians; and the influence of science, politics, and other arts on the voice of specific composers, among many other seemingly esoteric pursuits. Along the way, I’ve clued into many tricks of the trade, the sorts of sonic figures that inexorably elicit predetermined responses. Loud fast repeated notes with syncopated accents convey excitement while slowly evolving hushed harmonies suggest peaceful contemplation. Most composers can quickly describe several of these gestures along with pieces that exploit them to their utmost.

These stock figures became clichés because they work. Since we immediately recognize their efficacy, they tempt us to abscond with them and assimilate them into our own pieces. When we do this, they reward our efforts by evoking exactly the reactions that we intend, but when I’ve followed this path my resulting efforts have always felt less than adequate to me. These compositions objectively work, but to me they smack of plagiarism, feeling foreign to my personal artistic voice. And so I’ve tried to move away from the time-honored gestures towards more personal solutions.

Over the course of my creative career, I’ve discovered several individual artifices that are less widely shared but produce similar results. Certain performance techniques, harmonic progressions, and shifts in mood that define specific formal structures began to feel oddly detached to me, as if they were dropped in for effect from other works of mine instead of emanating from the heart of the composition itself. Other gestures—some birdcalls, other harmonic progressions and approaches to formal structure—seemed more essential to my personal voice even when they crop up in many of my pieces.

Recently, I’ve been trying to strip all the tricks out of my music. I’ve been attempting to lay bare the essence of my musical expression, to write exactly the sounds that need to be there without layering any of the personal or universal contrivances that I’ve often resorted to in moments of doubt. The resulting compositions feel much more personal to me, and also much more exposed.

Last weekend, I attended the premiere of a new work of mine for solo piano. In many ways, this piece represents the culmination of the first stage of this compositional direction: it obsesses over a single musical idea without resorting to any of my typical devices that assure listeners will find it interesting. It presents my basic ideas with all adornment removed, naked for everyone to hear.

I was shocked to find that I was more nervous than at any premiere in many years, even though I had worked with the pianist and knew that he would perform beautifully. My heart raced, my breathing grew shallow and fast, and afterwards I was a bit shaky for several hours. I attribute this to the vulnerability I felt in revealing the essence of my artistic thoughts, but I find it difficult to pinpoint from where this defenselessness emanated. Afterwards, I realized that my emotional state wasn’t affected by the positive or negative reactions of any individual (and I did sense strong responses along both tracks), nor from the collective audience. My fear seemed to arise from the thrill of danger itself, from the awareness that I was revealing aspects of myself that had previously remained hidden and was doing so in the most public way possible. It was like being unmasked.

In the end, I found this experience of artistic nakedness to be utterly exhilarating. I have never thought of myself as a thrill jockey, and yet I am very much looking forward to further adventures in this type of risk-seeking behavior.

Time to Listen

When I was a student, I challenged myself to listen to as many works by as many different composers as possible. Since I worked in the recordings section of my school’s music library, I enjoyed the advantage of free access to our vast collection of CDs and LPs, and I used to browse through these physical objects, seeking out all the collections of contemporary pieces that I could find. In this way, I discovered the music of Lachenmann, Shatin, Birtwistle, Wolfe, and many other composers whose works I continue to enjoy to this day. In addition, I used to participate in monthly listening parties with a group of similar-minded composers. We would have dinner and then one of us would play new recordings that might be of interest to everyone. These evenings were filled with fascinating discussions—through which I possibly learned more than in my course studies—and they also introduced me to Scelsi, Xenakis, and other creators of beautiful music.

Looking back on those days, the greatest predictor of future success among my contemporaries was the amount of time and energy individuals spent listening to music. Those students who remained open to the ideas they could glean from new artistic experiences invariably grew into the colleagues from whom I continue to learn.

Each new musical experience built upon all the previous ones, gradually and inexorably altering my aesthetic predilections. As my taste evolved, composers whose music I found to be too abstract in my first encounters often morphed into the center of my preferred palate. Conversely, I now eschew much of the music that initially grabbed me decades ago, believing it to be cloying and obvious.

My current problem is that my musical explorations haven’t kept pace with the changes in my personal taste, nor with the wealth of interesting music that contemporary composers continue to produce. I rarely encounter the sort of unstructured stretches of time that would allow me the freedom to explore music from among the dozens of new composers whose works friends and colleagues recommend as being aesthetically up my alley. Further complicating matters are the giants of the 20th century whose works I’ve found to be incredibly moving and yet have only experienced in small doses. Even as the internet has greatly increased my access to an incredible variety of music that’s available nearly everywhere and at a moment’s notice, my ability to take advantage of this abundance has diminished nearly as profoundly.

In order to stop this gradual erosion of my knowledge of the contemporary repertoire, I’ve embarked on a new listening project. Each week, I try to carve out blocks within my schedule during which I concentrate on experiencing a piece that is either new to me or that I’ve only heard in less than ideal circumstances. I’m trying to force myself to move beyond the paralysis that can set in as I face the infinite variety of sounds available to me at all times in order to choose one or two works on which I will focus during each session. I’m hoping that this venture might work over time to stem the deterioration of my listening skills, and that it will allow me to remain more current in my awareness of the wealth of music available to listeners today.

The Piece I Didn’t Write

The first piece that I ever penned for other people to perform was at the behest of my high school’s music teacher, for our orchestra. Since I went to a small school, this was a very unusual ensemble that featured a single bassist and cellist, and limited winds including one person who functioned as the only bassoon and French horn player. At the performance I also made my conducting debut on this funereal march, trying desperately to let the percussionist set the tempo while he was equally avid in his will to follow me. Obviously, this was an important learning experience for me. This concert featured another student premiere, a virtuosic blues-based blast of a piece. Afterwards, I kept thinking about this other work and how I enjoyed hearing it more than my own.

Although I was unaware of this at the time, this very first concert of mine established a pattern that continues to hold true to today. Once I finish any new piece, I find myself envying any other work that I hear for that ensemble. In my mind, all the other compositions sound better, fresher, and more interesting. When I compose quiet and meditative music, the other pieces on the same program that move quickly at great volume invariably excite me the most. When my music focuses on rhythmic drive, I’m drawn to the creations that explore sonic spaces, and at the concerts where I’ve contributed experimental soundscapes I tend to enjoy the simple melodies the most. The composition that hits the spot for me is always the piece I didn’t write.

Throughout my student years, I tried to solve this conundrum by pouring every possibility into each container. I would throw every interesting texture that I could ideate into any single piece, utilizing overwhelming force as the tool that would prove my compositional acumen. The resulting works often felt disjointed as they moved between textures, never remaining anywhere long enough in order to fully explore their territory. And at the concerts, I wished that I had composed those works that confidently remained in a single sound world.

I continue to love music that is both purposeful and uncompromising, and recently I’ve been creating new pieces that attempt to convey this aesthetic. I’ll write a series of works that focus on a singular emotional space, and as I complete each piece I’ll realize that my gravitational center is being pulled more and more in a new direction. When this pull becomes strong enough, I’ll move into a new period that focuses on those musical affects that I missed during the prior compositions. In this manner, I followed my series of pieces that were all about rhythmic propulsion with a number of new pieces in a new notational system that allowed for no metrical regularity whatsoever. Now, I realize that I’m nearing the end of this latter phase and I am gearing up for a series of pieces that follow in yet another different direction.

Two weeks ago, I finished a new work for solo piano. Since I had recently completed a series of compositions exploring microtonality and a variety of unusual extended techniques, I decided to challenge myself by limiting this piece to the sounds created by depressing the keys themselves. My planning eventually led to a deceptively simple and melodic piece with gently and slowly pulsing chords, and no dynamic marking louder than pianissimo. While I was composing, I was happily focused on this sonic space and I never missed the other possible paths that I could have followed. However, I found that the moment that I had completed work I began to long for brief loud pianistic outbursts. And I can already predict that at the premiere concert I’ll hear a work of great rhythmic virtuosity and drive, and that I’ll sigh inwardly, jealous of the piece I didn’t write.

Big Ideas

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced their annual grants to individuals. Commonly referred to as “Genius” grants, they honor people (chosen without a formal application process) who have made and will continue to make a significant contribution to any field—former recipients range from economists to a juggler. This year, I was elated to discover that the amazing Claire Chase, flutist extraordinaire and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (commonly called ICE) numbers among this elite group.

ICE’s very first concert, in Chicago, happened to be the night before a music appreciation class that I was teaching had their concert reports due. The confluence between a free concert and an imminent deadline inspired a remarkable number of my students to attend this event. I was quite intrigued by their descriptions of the performances of Bach and Reich, and so made certain to be in attendance at their second show. I was incredibly impressed by the musicality of these recent Oberlin alumni, and became a regular at all of their events. Claire quickly proved that she stood apart from other musicians and concert organizers by seeking me out in order to find out what kept bringing me back to these concerts. Once she found out that I was a composer, she asked to hear my music and within days of receiving my cassette (yes, this was ten years ago) had listened to it and had comments for me. Since that first season, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching ICE grow from a scrappy young consortium into one of the premiere concertizing organizations on the new music scene.

During the early days of ICE, I enjoyed the intense pleasure of regular breakfast meetings with Claire at a neighborhood restaurant. On these occasions, we’d bounce ideas off of each other. I’d tell her about upcoming projects and the sorts of pieces that I wanted to write but for some reason or another couldn’t make happen. She’d tell me about her dreams for the future of ICE. She always had grand plans—concepts that involved collaboration with people from several different artistic fields or countries—the sorts of artistic fantasies that obviously couldn’t happen within their current budget and other constraints. Here is the crux of the matter: Claire carefully considered these visions and never wavered from her chosen path. In time, she completed each of these projects and each one of them was an incredible artistic success.

I’ve come to believe that this ability to conceive and execute big ideas constitutes the trait that separates those people who create life-changing art from the rest of us. When I think about the composers whose work truly excite me, it’s invariably the ones who re-define artistic paradigms. Event pieces like John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit, Louis Andriessen’s De Materie, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, or Michael Hersch’s Vanishing Pavilions force us to listen in a different way. By expanding our ability to concentrate and forcing us to consider time in new ways, they bring us close to the sorts of transcendent experiences that I treasure.

Lately, I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons that I should have learned from Claire a decade ago. Instead of compromising my artistic visions in order to tailor them to the realm of the possible, I’m attempting to follow wherever they lead—even when the goals seem unlikely at best. I’m turning away from good projects in order to focus my attention on those rare opportunities that I need to create for myself. Sometimes the good can be the enemy of the perfect in the opposite sense of the usual application of this phrase. In our pursuit of those objectives that we can clearly accomplish, we can prevent ourselves from working towards those dreams that can truly change our lives.

To my mind, that has always been the true genius of Claire, that she always understood the importance of big ideas and never wavered from those targets.

Motion and Rest

Sometimes—generally during the summer—my schedule clears and I find myself endowed with the gift of large swaths of free time. Although I treasure these periods that allow me the type of liberty within which I can reconsider my basic artistic impulses and can begin to push my compositional aesthetic into new areas, I find that I rarely leave these intervals with as much new material as I had anticipated constructing in my mind’s eye beforehand. Instead, my most productive compositional phases tend to be those stretches that have me running from one task to the next seemingly nonstop.

I had a teacher who introduced me to Parkinson’s Law and helped me to fight against its tendencies by learning to create useful deadlines. Sure enough, I rarely produce much written work when no scheduled completion dates loom large. Instead, there are always larger issues to consider, questions that cannot be answered but engender artistic growth in the very asking. In addition, during those times I can catch up on the books and movies that I’ve been waiting to finally peruse, not to mention the articles, the serial dramas, and the indolent lying on the couch and snacking. Somehow, the empty stretches get filled without producing the sort of work that is ready for public airing.

This is not one of those vacant times. When I look at the planned activities for each day, I find myself wondering how it will be possible to complete even a fraction of my assumed duties. And yet somehow the tasks that need completion get completed, albeit not always in the most timely fashion. Emails get answered, exams created and graded, classes taught. And more. In the unstructured periods, I would find myself waiting for the perfect moment before putting pencil to paper, but during these busy phases an hour of uninterrupted time suddenly feels like a gift—a great window for composing. When I don’t have anything on my plate, I tend to hole up at home, but in these bouts I often utilize the few unscheduled moments to catch up with those people who I avoided during the less encumbered intervals. Ironically, the busier I am the more time I’m able to find to complete my own work and to enjoy the company of others.

I wish that I could carry over some of the openness of the eras of independence into my daily life, and I aspire to be more productive during those unimpeded spans. Yet instead, I continue to vacillate between the extremes of utter inertia and headlong rushing. It appears that my life functions as an exemplar of more than Parkinson’s Law, that it also represents Newton’s First Law: when I am in motion, I tend to stay in motion, and when I am at rest, I tend to stay at rest.