Author: David Smooke

Competitions Are For Horses

horse raceEvery lesson with Shulamit Ran at the University of Chicago would begin with her sitting at the desk reading through my new score, internally listening to my music as I anxiously would look around the room. Invariably, my eyes would land on the handwritten sign behind her desk on which was written “’Competitions are for horses, not for artists’—Bela Bartók.” I would be simultaneously heartened and saddened every time I saw this wisdom, which also reminded me of Charles Ives’s famous statement, greatly strengthened by the fact that he uttered these words to the Pulitzer Prize committee in refusing their award, that “prizes are for little boys.”

I’m thinking about composition competitions at the moment for two reasons. First, Paul Mathews’s beautifully written article for NewMusicBox, “The Cycle of Get.” Second, one of my students last week asked me for my help in learning more about appropriate competitions.

My immediate instinct when responding to the student was to repeat the mantra that I learned from one of my previous teachers, which he reiterated at nearly every lesson: “Competitions tell us more about the judges than about the pieces entered.” While I personally have found this statement to be both true and hopeful—for me it implies the necessity of applying for as many things as many times as possible in order to find the right jury for my works—I thought that by itself it might serve to limit the student. Instead, I found myself dispensing more practical advice that perhaps might be useful for the gentle readers of this column.

1.) Yes, composition competitions are very important. You should enter as many as possible. If you keep winning them, you should aim for higher-level awards. Enter ones that you believe you cannot possibly win (as well as ones that you believe you should win)—it’s the only way to ensure that you will find your proper level. Unless you’ve won the Pulitzer and the Grawemeyer, there are always more prestigious awards for which you can try. If you’ve won either the Pulitzer or the Grawemeyer, then you certainly don’t need my advice (but thank you for reading).

2.) Join one of the many organizations like American Composers Forum that publishes listings of available competitions. Read the listings carefully and make certain that your piece is a good match for the written rules. If they ask for specific instrumentation, only submit if your work exactly fits their criteria. Follow their guidelines in terms of length. Your bold art will find a more willing audience if it’s sent to the correct location.

3.) If you are a student who can afford to travel to them, you should apply for summer festivals that offer music composition as a field of study. They can be very expensive but also very useful. Spend some time to find festivals with faculty who you believe best match your aesthetic predilections.

4.) Competitions are a very good reason to have the most beautiful scores possible. They generally receive at least 10 and as many as 100 or more applicants for every prize awarded. Therefore, they look for excuses to dismiss scores. Sometimes they will use improper notation as a reason to stop looking at someone’s music.

5.) Remember that every winning piece will be excellent in some way, but many excellent pieces will lose. The judges for each prize generally change from year to year, as do the entered works, so keep trying for the prizes that are important to you. Winning a competition means that your good work luckily met with a panel that could recognize its innate worth. Losing a competition means that your good work met a panel that didn’t recognize its inherent beauty. Neither success nor failure in competitions should change your perception of the value of your own music. Treat both success and failure lightly.

6.) Yes, entering competitions is important and winning them can be a boost to your career. However, your real job is to become as good of an artist as you possibly can become. You will never be able to control the results of competitions (there is a lot of luck involved in your piece finding the proper panel), but you can always control how much you grow as a composer from one piece to the next. Some of the best composers working today had little success as students and only found their true compositional voice at a later age. Competitions should never be your goal. Your goals should always be about artistry.

The Kindness of Strangers

One of my favorite things about living in the middle of the city of Baltimore—which the locals call Charm City—is that I constantly am interacting with strangers. As we walk around town, we tend to greet other pedestrians with a nod, and when I’m out with my dog, people often stop me to ask questions about him. Sometimes these brief encounters lead to delightful experiences, like the day that I opened my mailbox to find a coffee mug and keychain proclaiming my love for Belgian sheepdogs (my dog’s breed) without a note or any other indication as to who my kind benefactor was. Although I eventually identified the other dog companion who had given us these gifts, I still don’t know his name, nor does he know mine.

Similarly, at times the world of new music can feel like a charming town in which everyone is working towards the same goals and is willing to help out strangers in order to share the music they love.

I find that there are more great composers working today than I can possibly keep up with. Sometimes it seems that people tell me about amazing pieces by composers who are new to me on a daily basis. We live in a time when the wealth of creative riches can be completely overwhelming and physical distance is no excuse to avoid learning about good music. Because of this, some composers who clearly deserve more recognition can get lost in the shuffle.

In my opinion, Eleanor Hovda is a fantastic candidate for the composer most deserving of far greater recognition than she has received. I have long admired her sonic landscapes, which have never failed to grab my attention, even when I’ve been listening to compilation CDs in the background while administering to other tasks, and I was saddened to hear about her death in 2009. She left behind a relatively small catalog of works, but all of the ones I’ve heard have been of the highest quality and I’m very happy that Innova Records recently released a 4-CD compilation of her music.

I’m working on a guitar quartet right now, and, as usual, I began by listening to several examples of contemporary quartets. The Minneapolis Guitar Quartet’s recording of Hovda’s striking 1992 piece, Armonia, blew my mind with its beautifully constructed sounds in an entirely engaging form. I wanted to study this piece further, and so I went online to try to purchase its score. I was saddened to find that it wasn’t available through any distributor that I could locate, nor was it in my local libraries.

Next, I went to the website for the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, who had commissioned the piece, and sent an email through their “Contact” link. I also posted a query on the wall for the Facebook group “Eleanor Hovda—Remembering” asking if anyone knew how I could purchase the score. Within a very short time, several people offered to ship me free copies, and less than a week later the score arrived in my mailbox. Sure enough, studying it has proven to be extraordinarily fruitful.

I can’t help but compare this experience with those we often have with major publishers. Sometimes it seems that the large publishing concerns would rather we didn’t try to perform the music they represent. It can be frustrating when you want to learn more about a piece but are faced with obstacles from traditional publishers—like exorbitant rental fees and lack of communication—that can create barriers between the people who love the music they publish and the music itself. In the case of Hovda, I felt immediately welcomed by her community of family and friends, who clearly believe in her music and want to see it spread to as many interested people as possible. I only hope that the kindness of these strangers fulfills its function and continues to allow for the music of this amazing composer to be heard as often as possible.

Sidetracks

Last week, I briefly discussed the importance of setting goals that reflect our artistic needs and desires. When we choose our aspirations wisely, we can better enjoy traveling along our career paths. We are better able to distinguish between true setbacks and temporary diversions. I find the best goals are those that allow for me to be easily sidetracked.

Sidetrack

Often, I find that I can become functionally myopic. I slowly creep from one task to the next one in the queue. As my schedule fills, I take less and less time to consider options outside of this very narrow path. On those occasions when many projects need my full attention, this single-mindedness can be a most utile asset. But once I fall into the habit of moving forward within proscribed boundaries, I find that it can be very difficult to jolt myself into even considering secondary options.

For me, it’s very important to leave myself open to following these sidetracks. The vagaries of chance can create possibilities that I never would have pursued on my own, and often these initially unperceived paths are the most fruitful. When presented with a fantastic bassoonist who wants to play anything that I can dream up, I found myself writing some pieces that I consider among my most successful for this oft-neglected instrument that always had frightened me when I would try to incorporate it into ensembles. A commission that came out of left field initially introduced me to the toy piano, and a chance conversation started my secondary interest in improvising extended techniques for that instrument. Indeed, I can trace my entire career in music to another chance encounter when I was in high school that led me to my first experience composing.

While these alternate byways in actuality might be the best roads towards my larger goals, I often find it difficult to turn away from the route I carefully mapped. Emotionally, I want to continue traveling along the path that I’ve researched, that I know will bring me to a certain place.

As I set goals and as I consider what artistic possibilities I would like to pursue, I need to remember that sometimes the best opportunities are those for which I’m unprepared. When an inviting alternative route presents itself, it’s important to be able to explore that sidetrack.

Goals

While I was seeking advice from a relatively well-known composer a couple of years ago, she asked me to tell her my compositional goals. I launched into a lengthy explanation as to what sorts of pieces I wanted to work on immediately and how those would help me to develop skills for my future projects, what I perceived to be the flaws in my current compositional voice and how I would correct these deficiencies as I moved forward. When I finished, she looked at me with an odd expression on her face, and then commented by saying that, although she liked my answer, that most people responded to that query by stating their career aspirations.

In the years that have followed, I often have thought about this exchange. To me, the whole point of having a compositional career is to increase my ability to achieve my artistic dreams. If I wanted monetary success, I never would have left my first work field in order to go to graduate school. If I wanted fame or to reach as many people as possible, I would have focused on popular music or composing for films or video games. I followed this path because I had a creative itch, and there was no other way to scratch it.

I think that it’s emotionally unhealthy to set goals that lie beyond the realm of what we possibly can control. We can create art that more clearly expresses our ideas, but we absolutely cannot predict how that art will be perceived by any specific audience, no matter whether that audience is an awards jury or a programming committee or the crowds at our local symphony’s subscription concerts. If we want to write a beautiful opera and have it produced in a fully staged version, we can set aside time to compose the piece, then fundraise over years until that dream is realized. If our main objective is to have the Met commission an opera from us, then the process becomes far less relevant to the work itself and greatly dependent upon factors beyond ourselves. I think that it’s important to place our goalposts carefully so that we always will be striving towards creating a better product.

many sizes of goals

Many sizes of goals.

The main reason why I’m considering this issue right now is because of a recent post on Fluting High, the blog of Helen Bledsoe, the flutist for musikFabrik. First, I’d like to take a moment to recommend this blog in general for all composers. She writes quite clearly on many aspects of new music from a performer’s perspective, giving advice on topics as useful as how composers can notate microtones in order to make them more legible for interested performers, and a step-by-step guide on how to teach yourself to play the difficult embedded tuplets found in the music of composers like Xenakis and Ferneyhough (yes, each step is remarkably difficult).

In this post, however, Bledsoe discusses the intricacies of the “Vision Training” that her ensemble has been following in order to help them grow as an ensemble. In her assessment, the focus of this exercise is far too heavily weighted towards perception, with little consideration of the product itself. In short, the ideas generated in these seminars rarely relate to methods for improving musicianship, instead focusing on topics like audience outreach.

I whole-heartedly agree with the conclusion she draws, and so I’d like to simply quote it:

As musicians […] when you ignore the music, when you ignore the basic precepts of artistic integrity (be genuine, don’t compare yourself to others), you gonna die. Even if you don’t immediately expire, you will suffer the indignity of being back where you started. Like a revolving door.

Voice or Schtick?

Recent articles on the Damien Hirst “Spot Paintings”, a series of works that he has been exploring for the past 25 years, started me thinking about how different the expectations are for composers than for artists. Once an artist has an idea that gains recognition from galleries, the expectation is that they will continue to produce that work or work in a similar vein for the foreseeable future. We expect that Matthew Barney will produce films focusing on distortions of his body within petroleum-based sculptures, that Andreas Gursky will continue to provide us with giant photographs of public spaces, and that Anselm Kiefer will exhibit more dark paintings based within German mythology. It’s extraordinarily rare to find protean artists like Gerhard Richter, whose entire modality of expression appears to change from one work or era to the next.

Certainly, we can cite examples of composers who appear similarly obsessed with a singular sound or philosophical approach to music-making. While the music of Steve Reich has evolved over time, we know what to expect from a concert featuring his music. Similarly, the mere sight of the name Jacob Ter Veldhuis on a program gives us a very clear picture of what we are about to hear. From piece to piece, these composers focus on ensembles of similar size (within a range) with favorite instruments appearing throughout their works, their perceived tempos and harmonic rhythms tend to stay within a prescribed range, and the surface musical details derive from a clear aesthetic bent. In the case of Reich, I find the style characteristics that I associate with his music to be quite comforting—I can predict with great confidence that I personally will enjoy any new piece of his that I encounter.

However, music differs from art in that many of the most well-regarded composers write music in wildly differing styles from piece to piece, or even from movement to movement. Even within a single piece, our music’s rhythmic profile might vary from pure stasis to exciting rhythmic drive. Our harmonies might move from thick microtonal cluster chords to simple open triads. Our instrumentation might range from kazoo and toy piano, to bassoon quintet, to string quartet, to full orchestra. The question that often arises as we assess new music by a single composer is: Where is the voice?

Oddly enough, it tends to be most difficult to answer this question for our own music. As we compose, we get caught up in answering all the questions that arise as we go from moment to moment, as we fill in the details and sculpt the piece itself. Even when we step back and try to take a full view of our artistic trajectory, we tend to consider questions of what worked and what didn’t, what sounds we would like to pursue further and what aspects of our earlier pieces seem played out. We find that over time our sense of time changes, as do other aspects of what we value aesthetically. And we get caught up in these differences—in those things that make each of our works unique—rather than in the commonalities of expression within our oeuvre.

Unicorn

When we have a specific schtick—for example, if we paint unicorns and rainbows—it can be comforting to those people who enjoy our art. From piece to piece they know what to expect, greatly reducing the chances of disappointing a commissioner or viewer. But I prefer the aspect of the music world that allows me to create work in a range of different media with a variety of expressive focus. I hope that outsiders view my music as expressing a voice, emanating from a single perspective, but I accept the risk that they might not. For me, this is one of the great joys of being a composer.

Digitization

Broken CDAs I mentioned last week in this space, over the winter holidays I experienced a period of relatively severe burnout that left me unable to complete any task requiring more than a modicum of intellectual commitment. One of the chores that I set for myself in order to feel somewhat useful was the digitization of my entire music library.

I’ve never been an audiophile. Instead of investing in sound reproduction equipment that can replicate the concert experience, I prefer simply to go to more concerts. At home, I rarely sit down and listen to music on speakers, although I often don my (relatively) good headphones in order to concentrate while I listen. In short, at home I can’t hear the difference between a compressed MP3 and an original WAV file. Unfortunately, I can hear that distinction rather clearly when I’m listening on the good speakers that predominate in the rooms where composition seminars tend to congregate, which has led me to feel embarrassed over the quality of my sound files while presenting. I therefore make certain to keep the uncompressed files of my own music for those times that I need them, while at home I quite happily enjoy MP3s.

Since I don’t own a stand-alone CD player, for the past several years I’ve been using my computer or MP3 player to listen to music. The excessive noise that my computer’s disc drive makes when reading from a CD actually makes uploaded sound files a preferable listening experience. With my old computer and its miniscule hard drive, this led to a gradual diminishing of the percentage of the music that I owned that ever found its way into my listening rotation. I also appreciate the convenience of being able to immediately download new music instead of traveling to a store or waiting for the arrival of a physical shipment, which has led me to go several years without buying a new CD when an alternative existed. That said, my internet connections are not the best and I’m new to smartphones, which means that I greatly prefer owning music files to playing the same music off of a streaming cloud-based service.

My recent purchase of a new computer whose hard drive contains ten times the memory of my old one left me able to consider expanding the amount of music I could leave on my computer, able to be played at a moment’s notice. I began to upload some of the music that I might use for teaching—pieces that I’ve wanted to play in class only to realize that I had forgotten to transfer them to my computer. I decided to continue with some of the contemporary music repertoire that I enjoy but hadn’t played recently. At this point, I’d built momentum and continued uploading the rest of my classical CD collection. Since that’s over two-thirds of the music that I own, by the time I finished this step, I was ready to complete the task.

I now have an entirely digital music collection. My CD shelves have been removed from the living room, allowing for more light and space. And the happiest result is that I’ve been listening to music that I’d forgotten I own. I’ve always enjoyed going for long walks while listening to harsh contemporary orchestral music—it colors the scenery around me in the most intriguing way. Now these perambulations can be more highly varied. At home, I’m spending more time quietly sitting and concentrating on music that I’d left in my past. It’s a little like encountering an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while.

And, yes, I’ve backed up the files on two external hard drives. I definitely don’t want to be forced to retrieve those boxes from the basement in order to redo this process.

Burnout

Some days when I wake up, I marvel at the fact that I have the opportunity to write music that some people want to perform and others want to hear. In addition, I have a fun day job that directly relates to my compositional life, allows me to continue improving my musicality, and keeps me continually engaged in dialogue with incredibly interesting colleagues and students. This vocation allows me to accept only those projects that I find most interesting and to experiment without fear that my stretching of artistic boundaries will leave my larder bare. In short, I understand that I am a fortunate son.

Even though I am the first to extol my good luck, at unpredictable intervals I enter periods in which I remain inexorably and unequivocally incapable of work. I can be remarkably gluttonous in my hunger for intriguing opportunities, and sometimes a glut of good fortune can leave me working beyond my constitutional capabilities. Then, suddenly and without warning, I realize that my sources of energy have been reduced to mere embers. I find myself in the state of burnout.

Burning the candle at both ends

This fall, I enjoyed many interesting new tasks at work as I began my first semester as chair of the theory department at the Peabody Conservatory and as I co-organized a conference on distance learning technology. Adding these duties to my relatively full teaching load presented an organizational challenge. During the time that I had allotted for putting new compositions to paper, I found myself needing to revise previously composed pieces as they neared their premieres and composing a large work for amplified toy piano and looping pedal that I performed myself. Meanwhile, as my deadlines loomed ever closer, I convinced myself that winter break would allow for an opportunity to compose like a fiend and to complete a large piece with an imminent deadline in no time flat.

Ha.

Instead, I found myself spending day after day staring blankly at my sheets of paper. Some days I’d force myself to write passages, only to despair later as I faced the truth that the music I was producing was not worth keeping. I gave myself small side projects to keep myself at my desk, hoping to engender that compositional spark, but to no avail.

One day, I realized that the last time that I’d felt my creative energy similarly sapped was immediately before I contracted a serious viral illness that led to an extended convalescence. Not wanting to compose my way back into the hospital (decompose?), repeating the mistakes of my own past, I accepted the fact that was staring me in the face: I had reached the limits of my capabilities and I needed a break. Stat.

The good news is that once I accepted that I was in a state of burnout, my depression began to lift. This allowed me to begin to complete some of the small bureaucratic chores that needed my attention in order to spark future projects. Each miniscule accomplishment led towards a greater feeling of well-being that I could apply towards the next task. Currently, I finally am finding myself capable of sustaining the level of concentration necessary to complete larger projects (like this column). This new-found energy is arriving in the nick of time, since later this week I’m traveling to Pittsburgh to present a concert with the League of the Unsound Sound, and another semester will begin immediately upon my return.

And what about the composition that sparked this edition of burnout? Eventually, I contacted the director of the organization and told him that I was unable to meet his deadline. Fortunately, he is as good of a human being as he is a musician, so his immediate response was concern for my health, and we worked out a new schedule that should allow me enough time to complete the piece. I am hopeful that I have mentally refueled enough to achieve my goals for this new year.

I find that the more I try to fight the need to convalesce, the longer I’m stuck in the creative rut and the more painful I find my time there. For me, the best lesson to take from these periods of burnout is the need to wallow in indolence, to force myself to attempt to enjoy the suddenly imposed respite. Only then can I begin to walk the road to recovery.

Rules for Design

bad artA few weeks ago, I was eating dinner at an amazing Peruvian restaurant in Wilmington, Delaware, (I mention this on the off chance that you’re planning to visit Wilmington soon, in which case you should look up Juliana’s Kitchen) with some visual artist friends. One of them brought up an old maxim of the art and design world: If you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it red.

The more I’ve thought about this phrase, the more practical this advice appears. A budding artist who wants to attract notice would be best served by creating outsized pieces that literally tower over their peers. Someone who wants to sell pieces needs to think about matching customers’ home design color schemes, which are generally based around neutral and wood tones, perfect matches for a nice splash of red art. Of course, this adage is based upon the premise that creative artists will accept their basic inability to create something they might think is good.

With very little tweaking, this adage translates quite well into music, where a parallel phrase might begin, “if you can’t make it good, make it loud.” There’s nothing like the sound of a full set of orchestral strings sawing away with brass blaring above them to help convey the sense of grandeur and awe, regardless of whether or not the basic materials are worthy of such treatment (what David Rakowski terms OLAMBIC music). Probably the musical equivalent of “red” in this interpretation would be “octatonic”—a modality found in Russian folk music that was utilized by a diverse swath of 20th-century composers, which goes well with just about every other type of pitch construction.

The main thrust of the quoted advice is to help beginning artists to emerge, to stand apart from the crowd. In an exhibition filled with medium-sized well-balanced images, a room-sized work will guarantee that the viewer will take notice of the artist. Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of this grand design, its creator will be remembered. Paradoxically, in a setting in which enough artists have heeded the time-honored adage, a microscopic creation might provide the contrast necessary to convey an individual voice.

***

I hope that everyone who reads this has a happy and safe holiday season. Since this is the first night of Hannukah, I would like to extend particularly warm wishes to those people lighting the candles tonight. In the New Year, I’ll return with more thoughts on standing apart from the crowd.

Rules for Writing

PencilIn 2010, The Guardian published a series in which some of the most prominent contemporary writers in the English language gave us their 10 Rules for Writing Fiction. I like returning to this list every now and then in order to enjoy the various takes on this deceptively complex task. The authors reveal their aesthetic predilections and what they value, both in their writing and in the works of others.

Some advice appears to speak directly to the craft of fiction itself, like Jonathan Franzen’s “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting,” but can easily be translated into music composition terms if one substitutes the word “chords” or “orchestrations” for “verbs.” I generally take this sort of statement as a challenge and try to create work that specifically defies these supposed axioms. One of the most interesting of the craft-based rules is Roddy Doyle’s “Do give the work a name as quickly as possible.” I know very few composers who follow this path in their music, perhaps because beginning with a title gives abstract compositions an element of literalness that experimental musicians eschew.

Some writers created dicta that are designed to help budding professionals navigate their way through the world of book publishing, but that might be equally applicable to musicians. Geoff Dyer reminds us to “never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project,” and Helen Dunmore suggests that we “join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.” In advice echoed by Alexandra Gardner’s posts on this site, Anne Enright adds: “The first 12 years are the worst.” Richard Ford focuses on these sorts of postulates with edicts ranging from “don’t have children” to “don’t drink and write at the same time” and “try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.”

My personal favorites are the 10 rules given by Margaret Atwood, which you can find here. She spends her first three points discussing exactly what one needs in order to write on an airplane, which seems rather odd at first glance since these are a remarkably specific way to utilize nearly one third of the space delimited for her most essential aspects of writing. The cumulative effect is to limn the importance of making space in our lives so that we are always capable of working on our art. The seven rules that follow continue to give a sense of some truly essential elements we need in order to create something out of nothing, and none of them specifically speak to the nature of the finished product itself. She leaves that up to the writer.

As I re-read the various takes on the 10 Rules, I’m struck by how much the authors reveal about themselves. I wonder what sorts of results might emanate from a similar project with composers.

Perfectionism

I’m one of those odd ducks who got into composition without ever studying instrumental performance. I took some piano and guitar lessons as a very young child and then eschewed all music study until I discovered my high school synthesizer studio. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed working with sound as a physical element, and this led me towards composing my own works for electronics. Encouragement from Jerome Margolis, my wonderful teacher, allowed me to write down some musical thoughts and begin the process of becoming a composer. My unusual background means that I’ve been able to make a career in music without ever thinking of myself as a performing musician.

I mention this history because last week I played a solo set as part of Phyllis Chen’s wonderfully exotic UnCaged Toy Piano Festival. I began by improvising on toy piano with looping pedal, and over time a structured piece of music emerged out of these explorations.

I was surprised to find that my relationship with this music is very different than my typical emotional response to my own music. When I compose, I reach a point at which I determine a final version of the piece. At that point, I either believe that any further revisions will begin to disintegrate the good ideas present in the music or I find myself up against the wall of a deadline, and the composition as scored at that moment becomes the artifact. Performers generally then bring that dormant seed to life, adding their own personal vision, but my work is (for the most part) done.

I found that as a performer, the piece is never completed. The more time I put towards the performance, the more I discovered about the music. I never reached the point of diminishing returns, or even the sense that I was approaching an asymptote. Instead, I realized that my response to the music I was creating was going to continue to change with each additional hour I was able to spend thinking about playing it. The process of learning the music would never stop.

The best performers I know are also inveterate perfectionists, a fact that surely creates a great deal of emotional difficulty. Before they would agree to venture onto the stage, they have a clear picture of their ideal performance, what they intend to convey. Paradoxically, our human frailty will never allow any of us to achieve that singular vision. Adding to the difficulty of the musician’s life is the fact that their view of exactly what constitutes the Platonic ideal performance will inevitably shift as they continue studying and returning to the same works over time.

I imagine that this paradigm­—especially the aspect that allows for them to continue approaching the same works in new ways—is central to most musician’s love for music. I also imagine that this pursuit of an unachievable Utopia must be eternally frustrating. As a composer, I remain ever hopeful that the next piece will be the one that expresses exactly what I would like to hear. This (perhaps vainglorious) hope allows me to continue putting pencil to paper. Were I fully cognizant and emotionally resigned to a certainty that my compositions will never reflect my ideal vision, I wonder if I could continue creating new work.

Having walked a short distance in performer’s shoes—which actually were, in my case, bare feet due to the necessity of pressing small buttons with my toes—I’m left with even greater awe for those perfectionists who can somehow find the generosity to allow us to listen to them as they work towards their unachievable ideals.