Tag: inspiration

Sound Ideas: Prompt #3

Imagine you’re at a new music concert. The artist or ensemble performing is really great, but they open with a few pieces that don’t speak to you. Everything seems grey. You drift into a dull torpor, hardly paying attention. But then, suddenly, it’s as if the air changes: you’re hearing something so outrageously compelling that it registers viscerally, and you snap awake. “What on earth is this?!” you ask yourself with breathless impatience. The music need not be rousing, per se—in fact, it may be the most tranquil, serene you’ve ever heard—but it has a profound urgency and resonance with you that shocks you with its arrival, rendering all other noise in your brain irrelevant.

What does this music sound like? Think big picture (affect, language, texture), but even more importantly, think small picture (motive, rhythm, etc.) Force yourself to hear details. Write down the first idea you have, without judgment; the aim is to get at what needs expression most urgently. There will be something instructive in your gut reaction.

Now it’s your turn: write, record, or otherwise draft your response using any method that suits your style and skills, then share it in comments. You can embed a SoundCloud player, a YouTube video, a link to a score file—whatever works. Here at NewMusicBox, we talk about music a lot. This project is our way of shifting focus and actually making some music, too. We can’t wait to hear what everyone creates.—MS

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Many of composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s works strive for an indifference to boundaries of style or genre. On October 26, 2010, Sarah released her first album, Penelope, a song cycle with lyrics by Ellen McLaughlin, featuring Shara Worden and Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman. Upcoming projects include commissions for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus for the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s “Reboot” Season, the American Pianists Association, Third Coast Percussion, and violist Nadia Sirota. Since 2007 she has served as co-director, along with William Brittelle and Judd Greenstein, of New Amsterdam Records, a Brooklyn-based independent record label.

Sound Ideas: Prompt #2

Composing is an identity forming ritual. It also teaches us to identify sounds we love and to commit to them in a form. I like to think that each of us has a melody that can stand for us long after we are gone.

Compose that melody by singing it. And when you have it, write it down. And share it.

Now it’s your turn: write, record, or otherwise draft your response using any method that suits your style and skills, then share it in comments. You can embed a SoundCloud player, a YouTube video, a link to a score file—whatever works. Here at NewMusicBox, we talk about music a lot. This project is our way of shifting focus and actually making some music, too. We can’t wait to hear what everyone creates.—MS


Ken Ueno - Photo by Rob McIver

Ken Ueno – Photo by Rob McIver

A Rome Prize and Berlin Prize winner, Ken Ueno, is a composer/vocalist who is currently an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. As a vocalist, he specializes in extended techniques, such as multiphonics, circular breathing, and throat singing. Musicians who have played Ken’s music include Kim Kashkashian, Robyn Schulkowsky, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, BMOP, SFCMP, and Frances-Marie Uitti. The Hilliard Ensemble has featured Ken’s Shiroi Ishi in their repertoire for over a decade. A former ski patrol and West Point cadet, Ken holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Linda Dusman: Leading a Creative Life

Ed. Note: When I sat down with composer Linda Dusman in her Baltimore living room late last month, the gender equality discussion that has transfixed NewMusicBox readers this week had obviously not yet begun. Frankly, as a reporter who has covered gender issues in contemporary music repeatedly, I now tend to avoid this line of questioning entirely when speaking with women about their music unless it relates directly to the work they’re engaged in. When it does come up, the topic is often quickly dismissed.

However, for Dusman, a professor and former department chair at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, this perspective and—more than that—this advocacy work, is an integral piece of her life in music, and her comments are serendipitously resonant here on the site today.—MS

In a clever twist of titling, most of the music on Linda Dusman’s recent CD, I Need No Words, can be traced to various texts and quotes the composer drew upon when writing the seven pieces included on the disc. It’s a point of inspiration neatly traced to her love of reading. The title itself, in fact, is cribbed from Virginia Woolf’s landmark novel The Waves.

“It all comes from texts, but I don’t use texts, I don’t have people singing,” Dusman clarifies. “It’s more a sonic response to the texts.” It’s not unusual for her to make note of phrases she finds musical or for friends to send her texts they think she might find compelling. Then these fragments sit on her desk, sometimes for years, until she notices them at a particularly opportune moment. “If somebody asks me to write them a piece, very often I don’t start from the text, but then as I’ve started on the piece I’ll read something and suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s this piece. That makes perfect sense to me.’ So, it’s nothing very systematic, but it is very powerful, for me.”

Language is not the only well she draws from. Visual art and the natural world are also a constant source of sonic inspiration—from a shift in perspective she experiences while looking at a line drawing to the rhythm she hears as wind moves through the branches of the pine tree outside her office window.

“I always feel like whatever I’m working on is in response to where I am at the time,” Dusman explains, citing not only her concert music, but also her installation work and electroacoustic music. “I’m not trying to write music that’s an escape from anything. I’m really trying to write music that’s a reflection on the contemporary moment.”

It’s also a perspective that follows her beyond her compositions. “My goal has been to lead a creative life,” Dusman says. Even though the nuts and bolts work of being “a mom, a department chair, a professor, even a composer” can wear a person down, she suggest that “really, if you approach everything as a creative project, it gives you juice.”

At the mention of her work in academia balanced against her family life, the conversation turns to reflect on both her own experiences as a woman writing music, as well as her observations as an educator. Her anecdotes range from learning to compose in small increments after having a baby to presenting a paper to the IAWM Congress on her study of the experiences of women composers in graduate school.

“It’s really discouraging for me that there aren’t more young women going into composing. It’s still this incredible minority,” Dusman highlights. Citing research on racism that points to “micro-aggressions that create an environment of micro-inequalities,” she says she finds that female composition students can find themselves confronting a similar situation in academic institutions. Still, Dusman reflects, “the other thing I found just talking to my women students: it’s hard to bring it up, because they don’t want to deal with it either; they don’t want it to be true.”

Even though it’s now 2012, Dusman says the issues still haven’t gone away. “When I was in my 20s, I thought it would be fixed by now!” she admits. As her own contribution to the improving the situation, she started I Resound Press.

“Women’s lives can be very complicated,” Dusman says, noting the work/family juggling act many women must execute daily. “So I just got this idea that there should be a way to digitally have access to this music; it should be easier to send things out, it should be easier for women to do that.” Many of the composers on her roster are older, so the press serves as both a way to provide digital distribution for hard-to-come-by handwritten materials and as an ad hoc archival service. “It shouldn’t just be about me. Having access to the resources that I have at the university, I feel like I should be able to find a way to support other women composers who are maybe not as fortunate to have a faculty position.”

And while the project ended up being considerably more work than she anticipated, now that it’s up and running, it’s getting notice, and that’s making it worth the investment. “I’m getting more orders for music, and it’s exciting to be able to help other people out, frankly,” Dusman concedes.

Still, when it comes to fair and equal treatment for women who want to compose, “we’re really not there yet.”

Extraordinary, But So Wrong

Last night our dinner guest was Paul Attinello, an extremely entertaining and brilliant American-born musicologist based at Newcastle University in the U.K. (who previously taught at Hong Kong University, hence the connection to my wife Trudy Chan) who has written in-depth musical analyses of Sylvano Bussotti and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It turns out, unbeknownst to Trudy until last night, that before Paul embarked on his academic musicological career, he was a composer. He decided to give up writing music about 25 years ago, however, because he believed he did not have the requisite discipline to pursue it. A composition professor he was studying with in the 1980s challenged him to compose a piece a day for a week. He actually did, creating a cycle of seven songs which he still believes is the strongest music he had ever composed, but as a result it also turned out that he never composed again after that. The whole matter came up because after all these years the work was finally performed for the very first time. Of course I’m extremely eager to hear it and also hope that it will ultimately get him to compose more music. After all, a compositional aesthetic that is open to both Bussotti and Buffy has got to yield some truly one-of-a-kind music.

However, in addition to piquing my curiosity to hear his music, Paul’s words hit a personal nerve. I too spend way more time writing about music than anything else and I also often worry that I lack the requisite discipline to compose music—I much prefer hanging out with people to spending time alone, I’m too easily distracted, and I’ve become less trusting of evaluative decisions as the years go by. Of course, the former makes collaboration ideal and the latter just belies my indebtedness to John Cage, although I have rarely considered composing indeterminate music. As for the middle problem, distraction—that’s a little bit more difficult to work around. I always seem to have tons of ideas for pieces, many of which never actually get composed. One of the greatest distractions I have when working on something is having ideas for other compositions vying for my attention and my extremely narrow window of actual composing time. There is definitely room for improvement in my composing process between the moment of inspiration and the long road to actual execution. Unless of course Paul’s judgment about himself proves to be equally true for myself as well. But since I’m ever an optimist and I refuse to believe that Paul should not still compose, I will plow on as well in my own way.

3 Phones

Imagine the music that could emanate from these telephones from three generations…

My own way (great for inspiration but often bad for execution) is constantly being stimulated by hearing other pieces of music, traveling, having conversations (not necessarily ones about music), and reading (again, not always about music). In fact, few things have inspired me as much compositionally this year as Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy’s extraordinary 1888 utopian novel about life in Boston in the year 2000. (This book had been sitting on my shelves for over a decade, but I finally decided to read it after seeing it referenced in David Cavicchi’s Listening and Longing, a book that has inspired my prose for weeks now.) To a contemporary reader, this strange account of our own times written by someone in the 19th century can no longer be perceived as futuristic but rather as an alternate reality. He was spot on about a few things—such as the use of credit cards and people listening to music on their telephones. But boy was he wrong about the mechanics of it all…

“There are a number of music rooms in the city, perfectly adapted acoustically to the different sorts of music. These halls are connected by telephone with all the houses of the city whose people care to pay the small fee, and there are none, you may be sure, who do not. The corps of musicians attached to each hall is so large that, although no individual performer, or group of performers, has more than a brief part, each day’s programme lasts through the twenty-four hours. There are on that card for to-day, as you will see if you observe closely, distinct programmes of four of these concerts, each of a different order of music from the others, being now simultaneously performed, and any one of the four pieces now going on that you prefer, you can hear by merely pressing the button which will connect your house-wire with the hall where it is being rendered. The programmes are so coordinated that the pieces at any one time simultaneously proceeding in the different halls usually offer a choice, not only between instrumental and vocal, and between different sorts of instruments; but also between different motives from grave to gay, so that all tastes and moods can be suited.”

It might seem totally insane for people to listen to music at home through their telephone lines as it is being performed in real time, although in 1966 John Cage actually presented a performance called Variations VII which involves sound input from ten amplified phone lines. It’s also a pleasant change of pace to read that in Bellamy’s version of the 21st century everyone is willing to remunerate musicians for the music they hear (though he sadly gives no details on how to effectively implement such a system). It all certainly seems like amazing fodder for musical ideas—what would such music be? Imagine the sound of an alternative present that was conceived of in the past but which is as different from that past as it is from the actual present, if not more so. Now to have the discipline to actually mold a piece of music out of such a concept!

Sound Ideas: Prompt #1

crooked roadVariations on A Theme by La Monte Young

In 1960 La Monte Young prompted us:

“Draw a straight line and follow it.”

The reverberations of this radically simple directive have been vast and profound.

But aside from those that we humans create, there are few if any straight lines in nature. So, fifty-two years later, I’d like to propose Variations on A Theme by La Monte Young:

“Find a crooked line and follow it.”

You may choose to realize this in purely visual terms. Or you may want to follow your crooked line and sound it.

You might walk along a shoreline, singing or playing as you go. You might trace a fixed elevation line as it meanders along a hillside, perhaps translating the contour from a map into musical notation. You might follow the course of a stream and record its changing voices.

Maybe you trace in sound the forms of clouds in the sky. Maybe you choose to travel from Point A to Point B as directly as you can, but the crooked line you follow is the rise and fall of the earth beneath your feet.

Step off the rectilinear grid that we impose on the world and wander wherever the infinitely intricate curves of nature may lead you. Alternatively, you might remain in one place and let the lines come to you.

There should be as many possible variations on this theme as there are crooked lines in the world.

And then there’s the possibility of a polyphony of such lines…

Now it’s your turn: write, record, or otherwise draft your response using any method that suits your style and skills, then share it in comments. You can embed a SoundCloud player, a YouTube video, a link to a score file—whatever works. Here at NewMusicBox, we talk about music a lot. This project is our way of shifting focus and actually making some music, too. We can’t wait to hear what everyone creates.—MS

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams, whom critic Alex Ross has called “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century,” has created a unique musical world rooted in wilderness landscapes and natural phenomena. His music, which includes works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, soloists, and electronic media, is recorded on the Cold Blue, New World, Cantaloupe, Mode, and New Albion labels. Adams’s books Winter Music and, most recently, The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music are published by Wesleyan University Press, and his writings about music and nature have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies.

Worlds Apart

During my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to meet the composer Conlon Nancarrow. He came to visit the school for a day, and a few music majors were invited to lunch with him. I was very excited, because his music was strange and interesting to me. Around the same time, I had heard Kyle Gann talk about analyzing Nancarrow’s works for player piano for the book he was writing, and about his adventures visiting Nancarrow in Mexico, so needless to say the idea of getting to talk to the composer himself was very intriguing!

As the small group sat at the lunch table and chatted (which turned out to be not so easy, given that Nancarrow was not a big conversationalist), I finally summoned the courage to ask him, “What is your music about?” He paused, looked at his plate and growled, “I write music about music.”

I still think about that statement often, because it is so far from what drives me to make music. While methods of weaving together notes and rhythms are fascinating and fun (and sometimes frustrating!), they are not ultimately what pull me to my composing table every day. What gets me there is the message that the techniques are meant to deliver—the story, the mood, the sonic landscape that will be evoked from the way those notes and rhythms are put together. I almost always have something extra-musical that I am attempting to deal with through the compositional process. Sometimes it is a story or a sense of place or a concept that I want to communicate to a listener, and occasionally it is simply something that I am trying to personally explore, and it is not necessarily crucial that the listener “gets” that particular message, or something different. For me, the most successful music comes from the things in life that haunt me until I compose them out of my system.

I find Nancarrow’s statement somewhat haunting because I wonder what it would feel like to have the music itself be the primary impetus for action. I’ve tried to experiment and compose that way, and while it’s interesting and fun for a while—in a crossword puzzle-working, Scrabble-playing kind of way—it doesn’t feel totally satisfying to me in the end. Nevertheless, I absolutely respect and admire the music of so many composers who approach their craft in that laser-focused-on-the-nuts-and-bolts sort of way. Even though my musical world view is situated in a very different place, every angle we take to making music is a way of experiencing life and sharing it with others.

What is it that drives you to compose and/or perform music? What pulls you to your work every day?

Spring Forward

Daylight savings timeIdeated by Benjamin Franklin and first implemented during World War I, daylight savings time keeps stretching further and further into our year. Originally intended to conserve energy by extending the amount of natural light available for daily activities, studies have found that the redistribution of the hours so that sunrise and sunset each arrive later might lead to greater energy consumption while helping stimulate the economy—with more daylight hours remaining after work, people are more inclined to leave their homes to shop or eat at restaurants. Because of the uptick in retail sales associated with the time changes, we keep extending the portion of the year spent in the non-standard time. Originally, we moved our clocks forward into daylight savings time in April and back to standard time in October. Currently, most of the U.S. spends one week shy of eight months in daylight savings time (Arizona and Hawaii remain on standard time throughout the year).

In Baltimore, this year’s time change has been accompanied by extraordinarily beautiful weather, with mild sunny days giving way to refreshing overnight rain. Abundant daffodils dot the gardens and the blossoms on cherry and tulip trees are beginning to unfurl.

Each spring, I teach a graduate music theory seminar in song analysis. We consider the relationship between poetry and music, and how they work together to create specific denotative meaning. The class begins by discussing “Come Lovely and Soothing Death” from George Crumb’s Apparition, with its conflation of spring imagery and renewed mourning, and currently we’re in the midst of an in-depth examination of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, in which the flowers and birds of spring evoke memories of lost love. Part of the visceral enjoyment that we derive from these songs arises from this unexpected juxtaposition of hermit thrush or nightingale songs and lilacs or lilies with opposing emotional reactions.

For me, this year’s time change and move towards spring have elicited a refreshing renewal of creative energy. I’m working towards the completion of projects whose deadlines quite recently had appeared menacingly improbable. As the burnout I experienced this winter slowly fades, I see new paths emerging that had been hidden from my view. Artistic conundrums that had seemed overwhelming suddenly appear manageable.

Most years, I abhor the start of daylight savings time. I like morning sunshine, and the first few weeks that I’m forced to awaken in darkness again can feel onerous. The loss of an hour always seems to arrive in the midst of a crunch of deadlines. I find it difficult to understand why we keep switching back and forth between two different time streams, and wonder why we can’t simply remain in daylight or in standard time. However, this year the arrival of the new time seems to have functioned as the true harbinger of a new season. The spring forward appears to have awakened my creative drive. I hope that all the readers of NewMusicBox are experiencing a similar renewal of energy.

Creative Juice

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
—Pablo PicassoCrayon Test 1 by _PaulS_ on Flickr

That is hands down one of my all-time favorite quotes. If I were a tattoo-oriented kind of girl, I would probably have it inked onto my hand. Preferably in the original Spanish.

It seems like there has been a recent upsurge in books, articles, blog posts, and assorted media content geared towards jump-starting personal creativity. Although this perception could very well be related to the websites I tend to visit and/or the mailing lists I subscribe to, I still feel like the quantity of this content has increased dramatically.

As someone who is extremely interested in the nature of creativity, I very much enjoy reading this stuff. I think it serves as a window into our cultural values as they relate to creativity. This was probably the first book I read devoted exclusively to the topic (honestly I found it a bit froo-froo for my taste, but many people swear by the exercises, so whatever works!), and although I have not tackled anywhere near the many that are currently available, this one caught my visual learning eye. I like it because whether or not you physically write down answers to the questions, the questions—with big blank thought bubbles around them—do make you think.

I wonder what is causing this new self-help flood. Is it due to the economic downturn of recent years, during which time people have lost jobs and income, and perhaps feel there is nothing to lose when it comes to trying something risky and “outside the box?” Or is the U.S. in a creativity crisis? Considering the radical cuts to arts education and funding, this would not be surprising. These books and ideas can be truly helpful for a lot of people. Sometimes a shot of inspiration delivered by another artist, or even just approaching an everyday action from a different angle is exactly what’s needed to light the creative fire. However, I wonder about the implied messages they send. For instance, that creativity is special, and you probably don’t have it. That’s why you need this book. Even the books assuring us that creativity is not magic and that anyone can unlock it are wielding all kinds of assumptions. When did it get locked up, anyway?

Personally, I blame a mixture of the pressures of adulthood and the 19th century. Somewhere in there, for a ton of people, creativity became compartmentalized; separated from daily life and as such, an unapproachable luxury for many.

To add to the confusion, abundant creative thinking is expected at every turn in many workplaces. Job descriptions want “innovative thinkers” at many different levels. So if these self-help manuals are to be believed, innate creativity is something we don’t normally have, and yet we are supposed to be cornucopias of new ideas on the job. What?

No wonder all these books are selling like hotcakes! As interesting and inspiring as they may be, they can become diversions from the task at hand—making something. I think Picasso had it right in his belief that ultimately, creative acts come from, well, action.

James Falzone: Music Through Other Lenses

James Falzone is not sitting back contentedly watching his star ascend.  “One can only do what one wants to do and see what rises,” he suggests.  As an accomplished performer, composer, improviser, and educator, Falzone pursues a musical vision rooted in the middle ground between the fully notated world of conservatory-trained musicians and the improvisation-based energy of jazz and creative music.  It is a territory he explores with an omnivorous appetite for musical influences and aesthetic directions, whether leading his quartet KLANG through a set of contemporary jazz compositions at a late night haunt, directing liturgical music with the Grace Chicago Consort, or composing for orchestra.

“I’ve always been intrigued by a wide variety of musics.  And I’m emotionally connected to them as well,” Falzone explains. “Not just that I find them interesting, but they move me.  I’m as moved by John Coltrane as I am by John Luther Adams as I am by John Bon Jovi.”

Falzone’s musical aesthetic centers upon how he filters and embraces his wide-ranging interests.  Rather than working within stylistic confines or pre-defined musical genres, he chooses to express his personal connection to the world at large through a concept he calls “Allos Musica”—other music.

“I wanted to start a project […] that could allow me to explore these different ideas,” Falzone says. “The whole Allos project is just a way to put an umbrella over all these different things that I’m interested in so that it wouldn’t just be James Falzone; it wouldn’t just be me playing.  It would be everything that is under Allos Musica.  My record company that I founded ten years ago now is called Allos Documents and everything just filters through that larger umbrella.”

One of his recent Allos Documents is Other Doors, a creative re-imagining of and tribute to the music of Benny Goodman realized by an expanded version of his KLANG quartet.  It is a striking synthesis of the musical spirit of Goodman that looks forward as aggressively as it looks back.

When the Chicago Jazz Festival first tapped Falzone to realize a project celebrating the centennial of Benny Goodman’s birth in 2009, he wasn’t sure they had the right person for the job.  “I’m not a nostalgic kind of player.  I love Benny Goodman.  I love the swing era.  What clarinetist wouldn’t? […]  It’s when the clarinet was a really popular instrument.  But I have no interest in nostalgia.”  So Falzone set about researching the life and music of Benny Goodman and found inspiration in the small ensemble works—particularly the trios and quartets of the 1920s and 1930s—and heard plenty of parallels between the Chicago of Goodman’s time and the Chicago of today.  “I try and do what I thought Goodman was doing in his day, which was a.) being himself, and b.) allowing his sidemen—his community—to be themselves.  Letting personalities intermingle and fight a little bit within the ensemble and so forth.”

His consideration for the players within his ensembles is similar to the consideration he extends toward his listeners as he takes into account the role that his music plays for those who hear it.  This is a quality learned through ten years as the music director at Grace Chicago Church.

“There’s something about the weekliness of doing liturgical music.  Each Sunday you come back and do this thing and it’s not about you.  It’s about serving these people,” Falzone points out, citing composers he respects who have done this type of work such as Messiaen and Bach.  “And that’s really a good place for any composer or any musician to be at from time to time.  Where you’re not making music for your own interests, you’re making it to serve others.  It’s really hard.  It also has taught me a great deal about music and about how music functions in culture.  I could come up with the coolest arrangement of some old hymn, but the congregation might not be able to sing it, and they’re there on Sunday for lots of different reasons that have nothing to do with me and my musical interests.”

Falzone’s solo clarinet piece, Sighs Too Deep for Words—composed as a structured, hour-long improvisation for clarinet and bells—represents one of his most pure statements as an artist. It is a piece that requires Falzone to enter into a meditative zone for the duration of the performance as he builds an internal dialog between three different “stations,” or performance zones.  “Every time I do the piece it’s a whole different experience for me and the audience,”  Falzone explains, going on to describe how different audiences can transform the piece. “I just did it a few weeks ago down at Southern Illinois University… it was mostly clarinet players in the audience.  So it had a whole different feel, with them interested in how I was getting these sounds and so forth.  I did it not long ago at a theological school and it took on a whole different feel.  Nobody cared about the music.  They were interested in more of the contemplative practice part of it, and the meditative part of it and the prayer part of it.  It’s the kind of piece that has a little different manifestation depending on the audience.”

The power of that influence is an element he carries with him from project to project. “When I’m putting out a record or putting pen to paper and making a piece, I think about its effect on the audience – on the listener.  It might not make me change a note.  I’d still say, ‘This is what I want.’  But it makes me think about it in a way that I might not had I not been involved in this other kind of service music.”

It’s that extra layer of consideration informed by experience that goes into creating music that gives the otherwise widely varied musical expressions of James Falzone its unifying quality.  It’s what allows him to distill so many different influences into an aesthetic that is identifiably his own, pushing at the boundaries of what music is and might be.


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.


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.