the 40 yr+ aesthetic and a bulleted list

Frequent commenter, and to boot one of this blog's only readers, Josh Newton has been philosophizing about compositional process over on his new blog. Got me thinking a bit about my own, and also got me a bit excited about the prospect of having this space - so uncluttered by staring and judging eyes - to diarize and perhaps even lay out, gradually, the fundamentals of my aesthetic. It occurs to me that I do have one - perhaps it arrived when I turned forty. I've heard life begins at 40, and for me there's some truth to it. Maybe there's something about turning 40 that enables you to embrace yourself, stop worrying about all those things you aren't, all those skills you never got around to mastering, and instead start being happy about those special core-defining limitations, in all their beauty, that make you what you are.

Somehow for me, shortly after my 40th birthday, composition got a whole lot easier. Of course I still say this with some trepidation, as if at any moment the magic fount could be choked, the muse put down with hemlock. But say it I will, because in truth I am not so worried. It is a fact known to all creative types that when it's going well, when the music floweth, it feels certain that the spring will provide forever. And when it's going badly, it is a near certainty that an idea of any worth will never again arrive.

And what I'm saying is composition got easier. When I sit down to write now, for about the last year and a half, I write. I seem not to have bad days. It started with a challenge I set for myself back in February, 2011. It was February break, and my wife had asked me for a composition to be performed at her installation The Jar Project. After some success writing a piece the first night, I set myself the task of writing 7 short pieces for clarinet and guitar over the course of a week. It was really quite a dare, since I've historically been a slow and agonized composer. Somehow, though, the necessity to finish a piece every day broke some kind of restraining belt in my engine. I found myself able to turn off the inner critic, and to just welcome in the sounds I wanted to hear. The resulting piece, a 7-part suite called Seven Jarring Dances for Clarinet(s) and Steel-String Guitar, is something of which I'm quite proud, even though it is perhaps a little bit of a stylistic anomaly for me.

Since then, though I have not given myself such severe nightly deadlines, music has just come easier. Perhaps the greatest testament to this is that I finished my opera. Those who know me and know of this project might say, yeah but Dan, you'd been working on it for like eight years! That notwithstanding, I was actually not even done with the first act of the Summer King when 2011 rolled around. In the time between the end of the my spring semester in May, until the end of my sabbatical in January, I wrote seven scenes - approximately 75 minutes of music. This in addition to an eleven-minute piece for percussion and piano (which will be premiered this coming September).

For some, I know, this STILL is not impressive output. And I am not saying all this to brag (I swear, I had a college roommate who's favorite four-word phrase in the English language was "not to brag but..." you won't hear them too often from me, suffice to say). The point is, for ME it's a world of difference. Somehow, I've found a way to let the music roll forth, rather than fighting it every step of the way.

I am not exactly sure what the secret is - though I think that Jar Project piece holds some of the keys. First thing was, I said to myself, I'm going to write every night, and if it means I write shit, so be it. And I also said I'm not going to write smart, or trendy, or hip music. I'm just gonna write what I know how to write - gonna play to my strengths (that also factored in because I knew I'd have to play the guitar part, and I'm no virtuoso).

In any case, I'd like to end with a bulleted list that encompasses some of my credo vis a vis composition. My aesthetic, modes of being, thinking, and feeling in music may not be entirely encompassed in these items, but hey, it's a start.

  • Composition is 10% generation, and 90% editing. Write ANYTHING, and then massage it till it's good.
  • Form is understanding the accrued energy of a piece at any given moment. (credit: David Del Tredici) Pre-existing forms don't, as a rule, work for me.
  • Pitch is a lot less important than we think it is (and I'm fundamentally a tonal-leaning composer)
  • Line is a lot MORE important than we think it is. It's everything. I'm no Schenkerian, but he was absolutely right in realizing this, and his work has plenty of relevance to living composers (though making reductive graphs is always a pain and a lot of Schenkerian analysis bends itself into a pretzel to state what is obvious to a good, careful listener).
  • I prefer Finale to Sibelius because it enables me to play with rhythm far more freely. Sibelius doesn't let you transform existing rhythms like Finale does (but it's MUCH better for formatting).
  • These tenets or principles or whatever they are only apply (for me) to art music, or concert music, or whatever awful phrase-of-the-week we're using. Pop songs have different rules so stay tuned.
  • Don't murder the downbeat.
  • Don't take yourself or your music too seriously. Just write.
  • If something feels embarrassing, that's a very good sign. 
  • If it starts sounding like other music, lean into that. (credit: Joan Tower)
  • Counterpoint is really important, and in some ways not that complicated. Have stuff happen not all at the same time, basically.
  • Have stuff bleed over the seams.
  • Trust your ear over theory in working out large-scale tonal schemes, and individual harmonic progressions.
  • I love midi playback (for pieces where it's applicable). Listen to the WHOLE piece in progress as often as possible (ideal for runners w/ i-devices).
  • As perhaps the last generation to have gone through college writing pieces with pencil and paper, and staying up all night to copy parts, I LOVE composing on computer. Not just engraving, composing.
  • Do not go searching for your voice. Write music you love, again and again, and your voice will come. It's up to others to judge it.