Tag: composing process

Creating Music about “The Greatest”: Muhammad Ali

When I set out to program the final concert of our 2016-17 Festival of American Music, little did I know it would have so many incarnations! I’m partly to blame for what we internally call the “ever-changing program.” Originally the featured piece on the second half of the program was going to be a new work inspired by Muhammad Ali that I was writing, but it turned into an opera. So instead of a 15-minute work it became a 70-minute rap opera, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. This shouldn’t have surprised me because taking on a subject like Muhammad Ali is not like turning a novel into an opera where the story is contained in the pages. Ali’s life was so much bigger than any one story about him. I thought I knew enough about Ali’s background that the composition would flow easily. But early on, I realized that I needed to learn more. Ali was so much more than a boxer, so much more than even just himself; he is a symbol and has a story that leads to broader implications and subjects.

I realized there would be no notes, not even themes, nothing—no music would get written until I learned about this subject. I hit the books in a way I haven’t done since college and basically turned on my old research brain. The first book I read was King of the World by David Remnick. That was the gateway book, because it is great writing and Remnick puts boxing into context so that it’s not just describing fights but also who the fighters were. It’s not just Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston; it’s the whole history of Sonny Liston, because you can’t understand the fight between Ali and Liston, or Liston and Floyd Patterson, unless you know who those people were and how they were portrayed in the media.

Then I realized that I needed to learn about the context of the time period including black history and culture as well as the Vietnam War. I read works by Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and anybody I could find that would help me put things into the larger context of black history and culture that related to Ali. Finally I decided I’d never know enough, but now I knew what I need to know, and I needed to start writing this script. That was definitely challenging because I’m not a script writer, I don’t write librettos, I don’t do that; I write lyrics for my songs. So for the first time I was writing a libretto for a dramatic work that I knew was going to be an opera-like piece; a rap opera (and sung opera, too). Ultimately to do this now 70-minute opera right, we need to do it in its own performance with a full production. So that meant changing the program.

Muhammad Ali and Teddy Abrams

Now the final concert is a celebration of American musical possibilities—presenting composers from the past, showcasing the Louisville Orchestra’s involvement in the creation of new music, and supporting contemporary composers of today. So in addition to selections from The Greatest; Muhammad Ali, we have pieces from Samuel Barber, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Herbie Hancock, and Lou Harrison. And our guest artist is an amazing singer who focuses on American music and contemporary music, Susan Narucki. She is singing selections from Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider, who is an absolutely brilliant composer. I’ve been dying to do some of Sarah’s music and this is the first time I’ll actually have a chance to present it. She’s definitely a composer to watch!

Shifting gears, Herbie Hancock is an example of an American master musician/composer and likely one you will rarely find on an orchestra concert because he writes jazz charts. We did a trial run at recent education concerts where the orchestra played the chart for Cantaloupe Island. We didn’t arrange or orchestrate it; we just gave them the chart that Herbie would have played (a bunch of chords and a melody). We came up with a version of it as a smaller group, so that’s what we’re going to present for this concert. (This is not something you want to try out first in a full orchestral context if you haven’t had time to work it out.) Not only did that earlier audience love it, but it gave our musicians a chance to shine and improvise; last time we did it, we had two horn players get up and improvise a duo. This is not something I believe you’re going to see in any other orchestra. In the second half of the program, we’ll play three movements of Lou Harrison’s Suite for Symphonic Strings followed by selections from The Greatest: Muhammad Ali.

Our Festival of American Music is a serious commitment to the music and the composers of our time, the legacy of the Louisville Orchestra, and the broader legacy of American music. We are celebrating and featuring composers alive today, and we’re broadening the definition of American music that can be played by an orchestra. I hope that our audiences who are passionate about music, of any kind, are going to find something in the festival that resonates with them.  As I built these programs, I learned and heard things that I never even dreamed were possible in music and that’s inspiring for me. I can’t wait to share that with everyone!

On Not Composing


“What are you working on now?”

This is the default question that arises when two or more composers gather in the same place and, at least in my experience, I’ve found few—if any—composers willing to admit when we’re not writing anything. No one’s willing to answer “nothing.”

True, there’s rarely nothing happening for a working composer: maybe there was a spectacular premiere four months ago, or you finished writing a new piece a few weeks ago, or there’s a concert of your music coming up. It’s much easier to say, “Oh, I just finished a commission for [this ensemble]” or “I’m getting ready for a premiere” than to admit that we’re taking a break from creating. Universities perpetuate the need to constantly compose, or appear to be constantly composing, with weekly composition lessons and end-of-semester juries. For the rare subset of composers who have no shortage of inspiration and write daily, I imagine these arbitrary deadlines present no problem.

For me, though, when I’ve recently completed a set of pieces—because usually deadlines bunch together, and I’ll finish several new pieces in a row that are all due, say, September 1—I need a break. I don’t compose anything, usually for at least several months. I don’t feel an immediate need to keep composing, and so I don’t.

When asked what I’m working on, though, I become defensive, telling myself that no successful composer admits when they are not working. Instead of confessing that the last few weeks have been devoted to teaching, applying to contests, and watching the whole first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in two days, I’ll mention a project I just completed, or a trip I just took to a premiere of my work.

It has taken years to recognize that this period of rest is absolutely vital to my process as a composer, and that I don’t have a choice in the matter: this is how I work best. Before this realization, I was afraid every time I took a break from composing that it was because I’d forgotten how to compose, or lost the desire to do so. But the period of rest is necessary. At the end of a yoga practice, savasana (or Corpse Pose) allows the body to rest and incorporate what it has learned. It’s time to acknowledge that in a creative practice, a period of rest can be every bit as necessary.

I use this time to go back and make small but important edits on the pieces I’ve finished, or to make parts for an upcoming premiere. I take care of small tasks I’ve been putting off for months, professional and personal. I research new competitions, grant applications, and residencies to which I should apply. I read books that end up feeding and shaping my artistic practice: recently, that’s included Dominick Argento’s Catalogue Raisonne as Memoir, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, and Liz Lerman’s Hiking the Horizontal. I get back in touch with conductors about my work. I update my website. I read and re-read texts I’m planning to set to music for months before I actually put a note to paper. I think about what I’m going to write next when the inevitable need to compose comes back. I finally trust in this process: it always comes back.

In re-reading poetry by a favorite collaborator of mine, Annie Finch, during this most recent span of not-composing, I was struck by her translation of Andree Chedid’s poem “In Praise of Emptiness,” from Annie’s book Spells:

We need
The empty
To find
The full
So that the dream
So that the breath
Takes in

So that the fruit
We need
All the hollows

And the want.

The poem is on my list of poetry to set to music—but not right now, and I’m going to answer honestly the next time someone asks what I’m currently working on. I’m not composing anything, but I’m working on everything.

Dale Trumbore

Hailed by The New York Times for her “soaring melodies and beguiling harmonies,” Dale Trumbore has received commissions, performances, and awards from organizations including ACDA, ACME, Center City Opera Theater, Chanticleer, Inscape Chamber Orchestra, the Kronos Quartet, and VocalEssence. Hear Trumbore’s music at www.daletrumbore.com.

A View Behind the Curtain

One of the really interesting opportunities that I’ve had over the past fifteen years or so is to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, into the worlds of both concert composers and film composers. There are many differences between the two career paths, but one striking similarity is how little those who aren’t intimately involved with the process know and understand about what actually happens as concert works or film scores are being created. In the realm of commercial composition (film, TV, video games, etc.), that lack of accurate insight into what really goes on during the pre-production, production, and post-production of a score can give those who yearn to pursue such a career path a very skewed sense of what it entails, and with so many composers looking to multimedia as a potential vocation, it is important to find ways to clarify the process.

I recently came across an interesting bit of insight into the inner sanctum of one of Hollywood’s most successful composers, Hans Zimmer, via violinist/composer Michael A. Levine, a long-time collaborator with Zimmer. Levine posted “Why Hans Zimmer Got The Job You Wanted (And You Didn’t)” a few months ago on the website Soundtracks and Trailer Music, and I found it to be a realistic window into that world, focusing on both the technical side of doing the work as well as the interpersonal aspects of collaborating with a multitude of people. Levine himself is a successful composer within that industry and his comments realistically reflect the various issues and challenges that one faces in that world.

In the essay, Levine touches on several different aspects of Zimmer’s work, including spotting (deciding with the director where and how music should be used in the film), work schedule, interaction with directors and film producers, and the difference between being a film music producer and being a film composer. Composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini were experimenting with alternative microphone placement and recording techniques to achieve effects that were considered acoustically impossible fifty years ago, and after digital technology came to prominence in the 1990s that concept of production has expanded to the point that for composers like Zimmer, the performance of the composed score has become only the first step in building the finished product. Whereas before composers would need to elicit the entirety of their score with the performers in a linear, analogue medium, today composers have the ability to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the finished score in a non-linear fashion using whatever initial ingredients the composer decides to record. Here Levine describes one example of that process:

“Later, [Zimmer] asked me to double every ostinato (repeating phrase) pattern the violins and violas played. There were a LOT. And a great studio orchestra had already played them all! I spent a week on what I considered an eccentric fool’s errand, providing score mixer, Alan Meyerson, with single, double, and triple pass versions of huge swaths of the score. Months later, I joked with him about how “useful” my efforts had been. Alan told me that, actually, they had turned out to be a crucial element of the score, that he often pulled out the orchestra and went to my performances when something needed to be edgy or raw.”

Probably the most telling and potentially valuable point that Levine makes is during his recollection of getting fired (a lesson that could be easily mapped on to many concert music situations as well):

“…[Zimmer] is also very aware of what the power structure is–who really makes decisions. I was fired—or more accurately not hired after a trial period—from a film because I jumped through hoops for the director who brought me in while not spending enough time figuring out what the producer—the actual power—wanted. Rather than being sympathetic, Hans told me I had failed in a fundamental task: determining who was my boss. He was right, and I haven’t made that mistake again.”

These insights not only illustrate the pitfalls and challenges of a very competitive and stressful creative environment, but they serve as a reality check for those who dream of attaining such a position, as well as for those who have high hopes of reaching the pinnacle of any artistic endeavor.


Recycling Bins

“Colorful Recycling Containers for Trash” by epSos.de on Flickr

I’m curious about composers recycling their work. The act of recycling can take different forms; for instance, a composition can be arranged for different instrumental forces, which is a very clear and direct form of recycling. Musical material such as chord progressions and melodic lines can be taken from one piece and transferred to another, or a formal structure can be recreated within a different context.

Recycling happens all the time, in all different art forms, and I find it a perfectly acceptable creative method. Many would say that at this point in time any music brought into existence is the result of recycling, because “it’s all been done before.” When I’m composing, I often save music that doesn’t make it into the final version of the piece I’m working on, and later go back and sort through the discard pile in case something can be mined for a new work. What usually ends up happening is that any old material I decide to try out winds up so transformed that it barely resembles its beginning form. In that context, recycling can be really handy, serving as a stepping stone to new ideas.

But I wonder, as useful as repurposing material can be for stimulating ideas, has it become in some instances a shortcut by which we avoid the hard work of creating truly new material “out of thin air”? Hearing the music of composers who have been writing striking and original work in very personal voices rather suddenly begin replicating their own musical “habits” in fairly overt ways raises an eyebrow; what’s going on there? Hearing a prominent melody from one piece recur in another is by no means an automatically negative thing—goodness knows, the music of Philip Glass, for instance, is very specific, and his techniques recur frequently. In general, my questions are about the impetus behind the action. Is it simply that the composer really loves that melody and is jonesing to hear it more? Or is s/he so buried under a load of commissions and deadlines that recycling has become a method by which to produce work more quickly? Again, there’s not a right or wrong here. I’ve heard a number of musicians and friends recently share their experiences of how much the increasing speed of life—both in a general, and in a personal sense—can affect creative decisions, and that they have felt the need to take steps to slow down a bit and take stock of all the swirling activity around them. Although the recycling of physical materials is something I embrace wholeheartedly, can music creation be viewed in the same light?

Adventures in Orchestra, Part 3: Final Thoughts

Seattle Symphony Sonic Evolution 2012. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Lois Photography.

A lot of ground has been covered in Part 1 and Part 2 of this little series on working with an orchestra. Here are a few final points, based largely on questions people have asked about the process and timeline of this composition for the Seattle Symphony. I hope that readers with additional thoughts and insights will share them in the comments section.

It takes a village.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child, and making a large musical composition come to life is not so different. The composer is only one little piece of the puzzle; an important piece, of course, but there is so much more involved. The amount of administration necessary to make an orchestra run is staggering—artistic planning, development, publicity, education, operations, music librarians, and more—and it is quite an experience to stand in the midst of the machine. And that’s before you get to the fact that there are 80+ people playing your music at the same time! It’s like the ultimate musical aircraft carrier.

It never hurts to ask.
Augmenting the above organizational village over the course of composing this work were a number of behind-the-scenes musician consultants, helpers, and advice-givers whom I contacted at various points, and they generously shared their knowledge and experience. For instance, when the idea of having an organ involved in the piece struck fear into my heart, what better way to fix that situation than to hang out with an organist? Every one of these people played crucial roles in making the music better than I could have done flying completely solo. I am beyond grateful, and I’m really, really glad I asked.

It’s not sexy. (It’s really not.)
Composing for orchestra sounds very romantic and kind of sexy from the outside, and there are definitely moments when it feels that way, but those moments add up to a grand total of a few hours, or at most a couple of days—a tiny percentage of the complete door-to-door process. I was well aware of this before I started, but nothing drives a point home like the actual undertaking. The reality is that it can be grueling, exhausting work. Obviously the level of toil differs for each composer and for each project, but I think that very few composers will say that it’s an easy ride from start to finish (and I’m not sure I’d believe anyone who does say that).

Basically, the trappings can be very nice (if they happen), like staying in a fancy hotel or possibly hobnobbing with the wealthy and/or famous, but they are simply icing on the cake. Everyone knows what s/he looks and feels like after wrapping up a long day and/or night of composing. It’s not always pretty. That is far more the daily reality one faces, and it’s the part you gotta love.

It ain’t over till it’s over.
Once the score and parts were sent there was a fairly steady stream of other items to take care of: publicity things and assorted other communications, travel arrangements, etc. Lots of folks needed stuff. There was no real detaching from the piece until well after the premiere. This somewhat affected my composing schedule immediately after turning in the piece, so next time I will adjust my calendar accordingly.

Post-premiere self-care
One of the trusted advisers mentioned above said it’s common to feel a little depressed after a premiere, so treat yourself well, get sleep, exercise, eat good food, etc. Although I didn’t feel sad, I did feel a bit numb for a while, as if waking up from a dream that I couldn’t remember fully. Those suggestions are things I do normally, but like a lot of people, when things get really busy I tend to slack off, so kicking a healthy routine back into gear helped to clear my head and restore balance. In addition, now I also completely understand why composer Pierre Jalbert tries to alternate between composing orchestra music and chamber music to reset his ears. Soon after finishing the orchestra piece, I had to jump into a piece for solo percussion, which was completely refreshing and just what the doctor ordered.

Appetite for Composing

Most composers I’ve met hunger for all kinds of things: for opportunities to create certain kinds of pieces, for recognition, for artistic growth, for the chance to impact the world, or for just a little more of that sweet cash-money to pay the bills. It’s fair to say that we’re all hungry for something, or we likely wouldn’t have undertaken the many labors necessary to develop our abilities to communicate in sound; yet at the same time, we’re all driven by individual tastes and appetites when it comes to where we invest our creative energy.

Some composers I’ve met have a voracious appetite when it comes to creating and collaborating, but find they have little stomach for the less exciting grunt work that’s often necessary in order for current creative work to lead to future projects. Conversely, I also know a lot of “operators” who seem to relish clerical and organizational tasks more so than the creative process. What whets one composer’s appetite often has little resemblance to the preferences and desires that drive others.

And just like our urge to eat, the appetite for composing tends to fluctuate throughout life, the current year, and even over the course of a single day. I know many composers who awaken hungry for composing and love working best in the morning, before the creative muse is clouded by the many other concerns of daily life. I find I usually wake up with a taste for catching up on emails, phone calls, and other busywork (like copying scores and mailing stacks of parts). Once these preliminaries are out of the way, I usually don’t get the urge to do some composing until the evening—there is something about being “off the clock” that makes me feel creative, and the preceding hours of busywork are just the thing to work up an appetite for writing music. Many artists speak of the normal ebb and flow of creative cycles or “seasons” that culminate with the “harvest” of finished work and a pronounced “fallow period” where there is a rest from the incessant intensity of creativity.

When I first started out composing in high school, I couldn’t get enough—I was hooked! With a few pieces under my belt and the focused scrutiny of academia, I noticed this hunger starting to diminish. Part of this was a natural and healthy result of increased introspection and the desire to figure out what I’d try to tackle next. At one point later in my twenties I was alarmed to find that my zest for composing had almost dried up—I still consciously wanted to compose, but that genuine feeling of hunger was, for a moment, close to flickering out. After the singular focus on composing during my school years, what I needed most at that moment was to take a break. Spending too much time composing is just like spending too much time eating; without cessation at least for a brief time, one doesn’t ever feel those pangs of hunger and therefore can’t find satisfaction. After taking some time off, my typical ravenous desire to compose returned.

Composers, what are you hungry for? What is it that most sustains you when it comes to composing, and what parts of the experience do you find less palatable? What factors seem to impact your “hunger” for creating music?

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.

The Need for Speed

Speed of Light by jpctalbot on Flickr

The obsession that composers have with being prolific has always been an interesting and somewhat contentious issue for me. There is so much worth placed on how fast and how much a composer can produce in a given time period, as if to assume that a catalog bursting with a large number of pieces means that the composer is better, smarter, more dedicated, and more creative than her or his peers with shorter lists of works. Both composers who are prolific and those who are not have reasons for working at their own paces, and it seems that both options (not to mention those in between) can be valid. There has been life-altering music written at the speed of light, and also in the thickest molasses of slowness.

It’s probably safe to say that most of us feel a twinge of envy at the thought of J. S. Bach whipping out a cantata every week for two years running, or of Mozart writing 23 pieces—including two operas—in the year of his death, not to mention the lengthy, large ensemble-heavy catalogs of living composers such as John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, or Christopher Rouse. Requiring beginning composition students to write many short pieces very quickly as outlined by Rob Deemer and the several-day composing marathon for Tanglewood composition students described by John Harbison are both intended to push and shake composers into new creative spaces (a good thing), and to learn more about themselves and their relationship to their music (also a good thing). Although I have reservations about subjecting beginning students to this sort of activity, I can see how it could be beneficial is small doses. There are situations in which more really can be more, but not everyone thrives under such conditions, and they—the slower moving Varèses, Weberns and Crumbs of our time (be they male or female)—should not be put at a disadvantage by that fact. There are myriad ways to discover new creative processes—racing against deadlines is only one.

At the core, I think there are two issues at hand. First, all of the very productive composers mentioned above are anomalies. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be this kind of anomaly? The passionate, obsessed, insanely prolific composer has been romanticized since forever and, somewhere in there, imagination started to morph into expectation. In my mind this is more a statement on cultural assumptions about “the need for speed” than about creativity and art-making. While for some it may be helpful to attempt to emulate such models, viewing levels of production as a measure of anything beyond “units built” seems misguided.

The second issue, which is connected to the first, is that we all want composing to be easy, and writing quickly makes the process appear effortless. But the thing is, composing just isn’t easy. Not all the time, anyway. Somehow I doubt that Bach breezed through those cantatas every week without a drop of sweat or a hair out of place. While I do think that pushing one’s self to compose faster can help make the process go more smoothly, it is ultimately up to the individual to determine what suits his or her creative mojo. I know several composers who cranked out piece after piece in rapid succession when they were younger, who now go much slower and take more time to think about their compositional choices. Both methods worked for them at different times in their lives.

My hope is that all the composers out there will simply write the very best music possible, with enthusiasm and full attention, regardless of how fast or how slowly it happens.

More is More

There are many people out in the world who are smart. They are smart about how much they can take on professionally, artistically, and personally. They know how much food/music/art/life they should consume at any given time. They don’t over-extend themselves and they don’t overdo it (whatever “it” is). If they write music, they will do their utmost to push aside distractions and only take on a few projects a year. If they teach, they know how much they can or should expect from their students.

I am not that smart.

Brushing aside any comments that my friends and associates may be able to make about my eating habits, I admit that I am not one to do anything incrementally. Ever since I was very young I’ve tended to “jump into the deep end,” so to speak, in so many aspects of my life—even if I had never been taught to “swim.” This, of course, has not only been the cause of much consternation for my family over the years, but it has shaped the way I think about what I do as a teacher and advocate of new music.

When I interviewed for my current position at State University of New York at Fredonia five years ago, they asked me to give a talk about my philosophies of teaching composers. One of the sections of that talk (that I still adhere to) was the idea that “more is more.” I recalled a story I had once heard about a pottery teacher who had half his class spend the entire semester perfecting one single vase while the other half of the class was expected to finish 20 vases over the same time period. According to the story, while the first set of students were able to create a well-crafted vase, the second set not only improved at a faster rate, but had a firmer grasp of both their creative process and the skills that went along with it.

This idea both informs the way I work with students (regardless of age), my concepts about presenting concerts and inviting guest composers, and, to be honest, the way I tend to write my own music these days. It’s pretty common to find methods of composition instruction at the collegiate level in which beginning students spend a long time on one piece, focusing on each detail and parameter, until they have brought that piece to closure; the duration of the process is based less on the length of the piece itself but more on the amount of detail and attention given to each parameter of the composition.

Usually teaching concepts like this tends to gradually speed up the process as the student improves until they find their optimum work speed. In contrast, I prefer to have the students work on many short works at first, gradually shifting their focus as they progress; my beginning composition course this fall will have the students write seven works every two weeks concluding with a second reading of a work they’ve revised. I will then slow and extend their process as they improve until they find that sweet spot that feels comfortable to them. I’ve had quite a few comments from colleagues along the lines of, “Isn’t that overdoing it? How can they learn if they’re going so fast?” I might have thought the same thing years ago, but the concept actually comes from my own studies in film music at the University of Southern California back in the mid-’90s; I realized that by working on many shorter cues in the classes, as well as my own scoring projects with students throughout the one-year program, worked my compositional “muscles” in a way that extended focus on one piece would never allow.

As I mentioned, this concept can also be used when considering how many different composers a student is exposed to, both in private lessons and in lecture/workshop experiences. I used to have to teach almost all of my students throughout their entire four years, but now that we have a few experienced composers here teaching theory, I have the luxury of making sure they have at least two or three different teachers during their studies. Similarly, I’d rather bring in a large number of younger visiting composers whose styles and attitudes run the gamut rather than “shoot the whole wad” on one or two top-tier composers who are probably much older; I teach primarily undergraduate students and assume (rightly, I hope) that they will get a chance to meet the “big dogs” soon enough during their graduate studies.

Some may have noticed over the past year that I’m not adverse to bringing in a list or two to make a point. It always surprises me (I’m a slow learner) how often these lists engender vitriol, since I never think of them as rankings or focus on the composers that are left off. I’m realizing, however, that this may be because of my own mindset. I find myself looking for patterns and clues among a large sampling of composers rather than focusing like a laser-beam on one person. I don’t think I made that connection when I started my interview project and now that I’ve completed 50 of them (with about 10 more to go), it’s all beginning to make a little more sense to me.

What’s been your experience, either teaching or learning? Did you start slow and pick up steam or the opposite? Are you smarter than I am (chances are likely!)?

Where Do You Work?

One thing about traveling a lot is that you start to notice how much where you are affects how you work. It’s difficult to find a place that meets all the persnickety conditions that seem to be most conducive to writing music: Is there natural light? What’s the temperature like? What about ambient noise? Is there a piano? Can I make weird unconscious sub-vocal humming noises without freaking out strangers?

Over the years I’ve gotten more flexible about these prerequisites, to an extent, such that I’m just as likely to be productive in a crowded coffee shop as in my home studio. I don’t need to have a piano around. I can put on giant headphones and, with a little effort, tune out the cafe sound system. (There’s also something to be said for being in an environment where other people are working, or at least pretending to work.) But this seems to have been a trade-off for me, in that I never seem to be entirely at ease working in any environment, including at home. I’ve exchanged comfort for portability.

To broadly generalize from my sample size of one, I wonder if this trade-off is more common lately. In other words, I wonder if it’s tied to financial and geographic stability, and the rising age of first-time home buyers. Then again, it could just be personal preference. After working on over-sized staff paper for years, I’ve gradually switched to using index cards (an idea stolen from John Zorn). Especially for the initial stages of composing, I’ve found it to be a really effective way to spur ideas that can be jotted down quickly, as opposed to the paralyzingly giant blank canvas. I also avoid traditional musical notation at this stage—for example, if an idea is purely harmonic, I’ll write down note names with no interfering info about rhythm, register, or instrumentation. The impermanence here is actually a plus, because I can easily rearrange and modify the cards as I see fit. Is impermanence in process tied to geographical impermanence too?

One definite drawback of having mobile working habits is that it becomes difficult to create a kind of routine. For a while it seemed to me like every successful composer was telling the same story about their working habits—get up early in the morning, maybe have breakfast, then write music for several hours straight. It’s funny how this pattern used to feel like a prison to me, and now it feels like a vacation. The story I hear more often now is about cramming composition time into the cracks of an already busy life. Are we really that much busier, or are composers just more honest about how they’re spending their time?