Tag: intention

Music is Bigger Than Any One of Us

Missing Pastry
A composer colleague was recently talking about removing compositions from her catalog; she stated that when pieces from many years ago just don’t make the cut in her mind anymore, out they go, and she repeats this process of culling older pieces every few years. Plenty of composers do this (I certainly have), and I understand that we all want to feel as if our stable of compositions represents who we are as artists in the best possible light.

But sometimes I wonder: Are we really the best judges as far as what should and should not be shared with the outside world when it comes to our own music? Are our present selves overly critical of the pieces our past selves have labored over? What is the real purpose behind our attempts to so closely control how, when, and what part of our creative output reaches beyond our individual perimeters?

These questions are on my mind because of a surprising occurrence that revolves around a composition of my own with which I have a somewhat fraught relationship. In a nutshell, I’m not sure I really believe in the piece anymore—it’s not very old, but still—and I have been seriously considering just making it go away. However, last week I received a quite unexpected email from a young musician who ordered the piece several months ago and recently performed it with her friends on her senior recital. She wrote about how much she felt that the music reflected who she has become as a person, and about how the process of rehearsing the music brought all of the musicians closer together because they found it to be a satisfying mix of difficult-yet-fun-to-play once they got the gist of it. The message was so heartfelt that I started to tear up, and when I got to the end of the email to find a photo of her at graduation, that was it; I sat on the staircase holding my smartphone early that morning and cried like a baby. Knowing that another person has been touched by something you created is a reward that is just as—if not more—satisfying than any of the composer awards that so many of us covet.

As Claire Chase states in her convocation address to the graduating class of Northwestern University, music changes us, and music is so much bigger than any one of us. With those ideas in mind, who are we to try to manipulate the perception of our creative output? What is, or could be missed by our clearing out what we see as blemishes in our catalogs? Is it possible to consider that even though you think it’s not so hot, it will rock the world of another musician or a listener? Would you change your mind about the piece if you knew that it would? One never knows…

I still have a “complicated” relationship with that piece, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel 100% comfortable with it, for a number of reasons. But am I going to strike it from my catalog? Not yet. Maybe not ever. For now, that music and I will simply agree to disagree. And the rest of the world can make up it’s own mind about it.

Lucky or Fortunate?

A recent New York Times Magazine profile of the excellent actor Peter Dinklage ends with him considering how happy he feels that he has been able to form a career playing complex characters in interesting projects. Dinklage has a very specific look and, like many different types of film and theater hopefuls, found that Hollywood wanted to typecast him into demeaning roles. He refused all of these parts, despite their alluring promise of making quick cash while working in his chosen field. In thinking about how far he has come, he said:

“I feel really lucky, although I hate that word—‘lucky.’ It cheapens a lot of hard work. […] Living in Brooklyn in an apartment without any heat and paying for dinner at the bodega with dimes—I don’t think I felt myself lucky back then. Doing plays for 50 bucks and trying to be true to myself as an”—here he put on a faux snooty voice—“artist and turning down commercials where they wanted a leprechaun. Saying I was lucky negates the hard work I put in and spits on that guy who’s freezing his ass off back in Brooklyn. So I won’t say I’m lucky. I’m fortunate enough to find or attract very talented people. For some reason I found them, and they found me.

I am struck by his formulation of the distinction between being blithely lucky as opposed to toiling at great cost and persevering through the great difficulty until finally being fortunate enough to find similarly minded people who recognize your talent. He recognizes that he owes his success to the kindness of others. He understands without those people, who have faith in him and in his vision, that he never would have been able to pursue the sorts of projects that interest him. And yet he also refuses to diminish the risks he took and the hardship he endured in order to maintain his artistic vision.

Since music is at heart a performance art, any degree of success in composition generally necessitates engendering excitement among possible supporters. For the most part, we need to inspire faith in performers and concert presenters in order to be able to present our pieces to the wider world. The act of bringing our music to life is essentially an act of collaborative artistry, but put to the service of projects that we conceive and create in hermetic solitude as part of a singular vision. Thus, music composition remains an essentially oxymoronic art form—it is inherently both collaborative and soloistic. Without an individual vision our music remains uninspiring, but without the assistance of others our music remains inanimate.

Budding composers who read Dinklage’s quote should take note of the two paths he proposes for artistic hopefuls. The path of least resistance would entail accepting the usual offers, whether or not they hold interest for you and even if you find them repellant or abhorrent. Those who chose this path might be guaranteed a measure of initial success and might find their ability to live comfortably while pursuing their art form helps them to continue in the field. The more difficult path involves remaining true to yourself despite society’s resistance, following your internal compass even as the greater world offers you enticing opportunities to deviate from your chosen course.

Those of you who follow the second path might eventually reap the fruits of your labors. Doing so would require a great deal of fortune, but would not mean that you are simply lucky.

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?

What Is Real?

Some might think we’re crazy…

We hear things. We hear things no one else can hear, and sometimes we’re not sure whether or not we can hear them either, but we think we can hear them so intensely that we end up hearing… something, and that will do. As long as there’s something to hear, everybody’s happy.

We hope and swear and pray that we can dictate or translate or remember what we heard or what we wanted to hear or at least realize that we forgot what we had heard and make something else up that probably will sound something like what we heard or thought we heard or wanted so much to hear–just so that those who couldn’t possibly have heard what we heard (or didn’t hear or wanted to hear) might be able to hear… something.

We curse the fact that in order for us to hear what we have already heard or thought we heard or wanted to hear with our ears, we have to be able to see it with our eyes, which (besides being a supreme pain in the ass) is damn near impossible to do, as what we see is (of course) not what we hear…see, not only do we ourselves not hear exactly and precisely what we see but our friends (who, through the use of wind or hair or hammer, want to help us hear what we hear or want to hear or thought we heard) see it ever-so-slightly different than we see it, and therefore may hear something else entirely.

We hope and swear and pray that our friends, through the use of wind or hair or hammer, can, in fact, help us to hear what we can already hear (or what we would like to hear), and once we hear it we will know what it sounds like (even though we have never heard it before) because, in fact, we have heard it, or we think we have heard it, or we wanted to hear it so hard that we actually heard… something, and that will do. As long as there’s something to hear, everybody’s happy.

We curse the fact that once our friends, through the use of wind or hair or hammer, analyze and interpret and perform this “noh-tey-shuhn” which we have allowed them to see, others will hear… something… which may or may not resemble that which we heard or thought we heard or wanted to hear so very, very much, and once this “aw-dee-uhns” hears that… something… everything changes. It does not matter what we originally heard or thought we heard or wanted to hear way back when–it only matters what everyone else can hear. And they will see us differently, since (of course) they know (or think they know) us now because of what they have heard, which may or may not have resembled that which we originally heard or thought we heard or wanted to hear so very, very, very much way back when.

We hear things. We hear things and through years of trial and error we allow others to hear… something… that makes them smile or wince or think or dance. That is why we are here. That is why we do what we do. Others allow us to do what we do through their many forms of support and generosity because they want to know us (or think they know us) by hearing what we say we heard–“I am someone who has heard something truly interesting,” we say, “ and by listening and hearing to what I have heard, you might get to know me a little better.”

It is this intimacy that makes what we do–composing–special and important. It matters to our audiences to know with whom they are becoming intimate, whose mind they are getting to know. It matters to our performers who, through their wind or hair or hammers, come even closer to knowing who we are and, in some ways, re-inventing us altogether.

It does not matter who created a work, but it matters that everyone know who created a work. It matters because it is why we do what we do.

Some might think I’m crazy…