On Big Questions of Creativity and Intention
or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Zuckerberg’s machine. As with other areas in the many realms of public discourse these days, there are times when, for me, taking a gander at the old quotidian chit-chat stream on Facebook has just become unbearable. It’s OutrageBook in these trying times, or LookAtMeWinningBook, which it’s… Read more »
or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Zuckerberg’s machine.
As with other areas in the many realms of public discourse these days, there are times when, for me, taking a gander at the old quotidian chit-chat stream on Facebook has just become unbearable. It’s OutrageBook in these trying times, or LookAtMeWinningBook, which it’s now been for years, with a cast of players who are more or less successful in navigating the subtle side of the #winning game that varies depending on your own feed. Once in a while, still, it’s DesperationBook, with an alarming call for help nestled in there after LookAtWhatBabyFedPuppyBook posts (that might just be my very helpful personal algorithms at work, knowing what I will definitely click on), but we’re in an era of savvy self-marketers who are constantly improving our posts Content™ and protecting our online fake persona Brand™. Facebook is not for musings on self-harm (or even, yes, suicide, back in the day) anymore. Now we know better, somehow: that’s just not what our friends? Audience™ wants to see.
Too cynical? Sure it is. Also it isn’t really the point of this missive. We each have our own way with each of these soc med platforms. Twitter has turned into Land Of Dark Thoughts Quickly Typed in recent months, for example, although I don’t deny the geniuses in our midst. But it has seemed that for the entire 2010s thus far, Facebook has been a place for composers and co. (whether to chat, laugh, share work, share opportunities, discuss musical issues, discuss politics, fight like hell) to come together. The same is true for actors, string players, academics, doctors, and bankers, to some extent, I’m assuming. But for composers, or for the several hundred spread over six continents whom I’m FBfriends with, at any rate, it has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night. Our lot, as a rule, doesn’t congregate. The quartet or troupe or surgery team needs to be in the room, together. We work best alone, no matter what TV comedy writers have to say about the creative process, and we know that from years of trying to write with a hangover. We don’t, en masse, otherwise come together. Maybe this place is our water cooler.
For me personally, I can safely * though not proudly * say that a day going by without me checking FB has been a rarity in the last five years. I’m a freelancer who works from home, and so in that time, my days of not leaving the house or speaking to another person (esp. while in deadline/work-trance mode) have outnumbered my no-social-media days by the dozens or hundreds. I say, without too much embarrassment, that most of my hours are spent in solitude, never more so than in the past few years since I’ve moved to a new city. I go on Facebook and the like to dial in. I very much suspect that I’m not the only professional scribbler to do so. Even so, this recent sour mood at the virtual party felt like just too much, so several weeks ago and a bit on a whim, I quit, cold-turkey style, for a full seven days. Apps off phone, bookmarks flicked away. I realized what an incredible habit I’d acquired, but also that after three days, I felt just fine about what I didn’t know about everyone else. I missed #metoo and #notallmen entirely.
But what to do when it was time to log back in? I headed straight for one of my old personal standbys, SnarkBook, announcing that I was back and did you miss me and that I was so happy not to have missed anything! Since then, I’ve not reloaded apps or pages so as to make them easy to get to, and have remained pleased with my Newly Distant Daddy involvement. But on day two, without really giving it too much thought, I went to an old trope in terms of my posts:
Here’s a composer question for composers:
Looking back on all of your work, and trying to be objective about it*, do you feel that the pieces that had some special emotional significance to you while you were writing them resulted in (objectively*) better music?
Are the ones we want to be the best really the best?
*understood as probably not possible
I find that the “composer question for composers” post pops up every few days, somewhere on my feed, although sometimes in statement form. Generally, it’s coming from a fairly personal place for the author, although some like to rouse the rabble and say something #controversial once in a while. Although as I say, I read a lot of outrage from people who appear to agree with each other these days, so the “Beethoven(/Brahms/Mahler/Boulez) sucks” comments, being too hot to touch (even if they are about dead people who really can’t hear them) have been on the dwindle. Instead, they range from shoptalk to the downright philosophical in terms of content (the threads that veer into style can turn into 500-comment monsoons and are just downright poisonous. Sad!). My occasional forays into the genre seem no different. Whether off the top of the noggin (“Just heard Copland Dickinson Songs – still genius! I’d forgotten. Had you?” or a musi-business bone-to-pick thing), or a strongly worded, fiercely grandstanding COMPOSED POST about gender and programming, I realize: Okay, yes I do want to talk about this stuff sometimes. And whenever that seems apparent, from anyone, it seems like the group is eager to jump in.
I found the response to my composer question for composers, after a week away from AngryBook, to be unexpectedly delightful. In addition to the many composers, those who could relate—writers, performers, and others—also joined in, almost immediately. I asked and ran—never really offering my own thoughts—and returned after some time only find a whole world of perspective. Over the next 24 hours, there were more than 50 comments, from the casual “Nope” to the poetic, with sprinkles of the typical self-congratulation and snark we can surely expect from any bunch of composers so gathered. Yet, it has also dawned on me: never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.
This was especially interesting to me in this case, given my hasty choice and inclusion of several words that I know very well will shut a room full of composers right up. Words like “objective,” “best,” and “emotional” are hot, hot words amongst us, a group that would disagree as to their meaning before even getting into their usage. Had I really formulated a Serious Question for Serious Thought And Conversation, I would have likely afforded myself the time to, well, basically dodge the question. Aye!—there’s the rub. Facebook isn’t the place for formal questions and stilted answers, both designed to impress our colleagues (and besides, I’m well out of grad school. * taps mic * Is this thing on?). These words were about me—me, a composer. Hey, you, a composer, what are your thoughts? And hi, it’s your old pal Sean. Use all the dangerous words you want; it’s only Facebook. Let’s communicate, right here in public.
“Best” in music is a danger word. My conservatory education, which at times consisted of preposterously idiotic nuggets—such as “Brahms is the best and also Tchaikovsky is not the best”—presented as some kind of acceptable canonic knowledge, is a constant reminder for me of danger words like best. Six minutes after my post, John Glover, who I’ve known since he was 18 and I not too much older, was on to me. “Asking to make the ‘best’ is usually a recipe for disaster. The only thing I find consistently helpful is maintaining a feeling of softness and curiosity.” Andrew McManus soon sought further clarification: “Do you really mean ‘the best’ piece, or ‘the most successful at accomplishing the goals of that particular work’?”
It occurred to me: yes, “best” is a dangerous word, and I don’t often use it when talking about other’s work. (Is Daphnis Ravel’s best work? Yes. Is Gaspard Ravel’s best work? Yes. Useless, even to throw opinions around with.) But also: yes, I most definitely mean “best” when I’m talking about my own. I have a best piece (perhaps, but not necessarily, my most significant piece), and that is how I choose to think about it. I’m thoroughly aware that within my own body of work, I can point to “good” and “bad” moments as I choose to see them, and for the sake of my work, I most certainly apply scrutiny and criticism to everything I make. I do let it bog me down, I do wish I could be better at the job, and I most certainly wish my best was better—I’m an optimist in the hope that my best does in fact get better. It’s an important part of my daily working process—making “good” work to feel good about the work I make. But I’m also old enough to see that we eventually just become more aware of our own limitations. And yet I hear John’s message and Andrew’s context loud and clear—a little softness and curiosity could go well with all that awareness.
Predictably, though, throughout the discussion, the hotter, deeper buzzword-topic—that big one—was emotion. Again, my minds drifts back toward my education—music and emotion; emotion and music—this could get out of hand so very quickly! I also think of the 15 years that I sat in seminar rooms with mostly straight white men and all of my years of weekly lessons with teachers who were nearly all straight white men, and how comfortable I felt in discussing my emotional world and its connections to my attempted artmaking. Which is to say: I was not. Usually they, also, were not. But I was lucky with those men. Once in while we were able to open up, and I could talk about what I was really talking about. Thank god for that. But much more often there were other things that were easier to discuss—for Xenakis, design, for Messiaen, harmony, etc. Talking about the Greek War of Independence or a deeply held Catholicism could get messy and speculative and VERY not-objective. Let’s look at the notes!
For a performer, dealing with emotion is an intrinsic part of one’s education. On stage, emotion will not be denied. We each have seen all manner of trajectory in front of our eyes—from good to great to sublime, from bad to worse, general lethargy, general mania—guided simply by responding to a performer’s emotional state in live performance. Their training in channeling the energy for the better begins as soon as they pick up a bow. But as a general topic of interest to composers, it’s one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects we, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus. As a result, when a composer says they are not emotionally connected to the work they make, I tend to believe them. Emotion is for others. We’ve just been diligently putting notes on a page, by ourselves, for months. Please, anyone else, emote away! With passion, please!
On the question of a personal emotional connection to the music during composition, there were great guns in the conversation threads throughout, first from Dalit Warshaw: “I find that one’s perspective toward one’s music is constantly in flux, and that—when revisited after a respite of (even) years—new wisdoms, about one’s self, the nature of one’s writing, continually emerge… Re your question: I’ve wondered the same thing, and do tend to think it may be the case, perhaps because, when deeply in touch with one’s emotions, one is perhaps also more in touch with one’s creative intuition and inner freedom. The trick, I think, is to be like a Method actor in finding the emotional sincerity in every work one writes.” Alan Fletcher agrees with the idea of flux over time, writing “very often the pieces I doubted most in composition reveal themselves to me as better than I thought—not always, though. And pieces I am enthusiastic about during composition come to seem too obvious, or something…. I’m not talking about the motivation for the work, just the impression I have of how well it’s going. But I do find a correlation with works written from a deep emotional impulse and works that end up satisfying me in the end.”
Reynold Tharp is acutely aware of this turbulent connection. “My best pieces are the ones in which I had some kind of strong emotional engagement with the compositional process and the desired affective or expressive character,” he says. “Also often they’re the pieces during which I oscillate the most between thinking they’re great and thinking they’re awful as I’m working on them. If I don’t have an emotional connection with the idea of the piece or what I feel I can do within the limits of the project or medium, it will almost always end up being a weaker piece. Of course, even the more strongly felt pieces all have their flaws too…” John Mackey has found his balance by looking outward, writing, “I think my best two pieces are the two that I wrote about loss—but not my own. Putting myself into an empathetic place about somebody else’s loss gave me just enough distance to still approach the pieces with craft first, rather than simply emoting on the page.”
For Clare Glackin, the process is not easy to pinpoint, saying, “I think it comes down to what I call “essence”—kind of hard to define but I use this word to describe the soul of a piece—the specific mood or aura or thing that the piece is expressing that’s hard to put into words. The things I’ve written that have been most emotionally significant to me have stronger essences. And to me a stronger essence almost always equals a better piece, as long as the composer has the skill to realize their intention. Without a specific essence, the music might be decent but it is more generic and boring than it would be otherwise.”
I do believe the stakes change with the task/piece at/in hand, and Matthew Peterson’s comment resonated for me and brought the conversation back to earth a little: “I always have to like and be enthralled in some way by what I create, but it’s hard to write a funky, weird baritone sax solo ‘from the heart’ or some sort of inner investment.” It reminded me that we can’t always be sure what we are or aren’t saying or how from the heart we really are. I recently heard a piece for the first time in years, one I finished in 2011 in the wake of a mutually devastating breakup with a longtime boyfriend. In no way connected in my mind at the time, the first thing that occurred to me upon hearing it again: “Whoa Nelly, that is some real Breakup Music™!” Jefferson Friedman hit that nail on the head: “Not to be reductive, but honestly all the best ones were about a girl.”
And what of the answers to my million-dollar question? Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best? A sea of noes flooded the comments early on. Marcos Balter went further: “Actually, my best ones are almost always the ones I composed the fastest, without thinking much of them.” But the yeses began to balance the scales; Felipe Lara wrote that, for him, “my favorite ones of mine are the ones I work on the hardest—sort of opposite of Marcos.” Felipe and I also share the same attending secondary fear. If the answer is yes, that the pieces we are the most ambitious about, or attached to, confused/rattled by, are in fact for us, the (non-objective) best—is it only because we want them to be?
Like others in ComposerBook land, I wrote the post simply because I was confronting the question myself. I was going through something (part of a bigger story for me as I’ve struggled with blocks and with finishing “special” pieces for special occasions for several years now). I reached out into the ether and found more perspective and commiseration (including from those I’ve barely met in person, or haven’t seen in many years) than I should have reasonably expected. Social media, as it’s slowly morphed and grown up and changed, has guided our online behaviors as well. This was a normal day online in 2017, yet wouldn’t have been possible even in the FB of 2009, when it was five years old. For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, and I’m not stepping anywhere near the global/political issues that are coming into focus here, I can see that my relationship to this community of my colleagues is partially facilitated by the daily feed. If I were pressed about it, I’d say: yes, I’m glad it’s around.
In the end, did I find an answer for myself? No. I don’t know if the pieces I truly want to be good really are good simply because that’s what I want. However, I know that for me it’s not about what others like or don’t about it. I definitely am okay with holding the outsider opinion on a piece of my own (and yes, many of us certainly have), whether it’s thumbs up or thumbs down. I like the Mies van der Rohe line, “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” It fits my temperament and ideas about why I should do this and not some other thing with all the remaining solitary-ish days of my life. Best, though, is yet another category. If we really only have one best piece, or moment, or gesture, or note in our whole lives, then the likelihood of us writing it today is low. How relaxing—what a relief! I’ll do as well as I can today and try (and fail) not to obsess too much about it. Then I’ll just click right here and see what’s new on Netflix…
Sean Shepherd, an occasional contributor to New Music Box since 2006, is currently in deadline/work-trance mode on a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.