Composer, Interrupted

Composer, Interrupted

Roger Hannay

In 1985, I received a communication from Gilbert Chase requesting an article to be published in a projected second edition of his book The American Composer Speaks. I decided that this would be an opportunity to put into print my views on art and musical composition and submitted this essay, originally titled “The Creative Arts and the Composer,” which I had written for myself a year earlier.

Many months after I delivered the manuscript to Kathryn and Gilbert Chase I discovered that they had been working under a hopeful delusion. There was to be no second edition, nor publication of any kind. Without their knowledge, the project had collapsed before it began. Thereafter my little essay became for me a source for various reincarnations like the protean sermon of Reverend Canon Chasuable, equally suitable for lectures, introductory remarks, quotable paragraphs, and finally as “Appendix No. VIII” in my collection of autobiographical essays, My Book of Life. Now I am pleased to see it in print and published in NewMusicBox.

Roger Hannay—June 1, 2005


When writing about their work, authors have the happy advantage of doing so in their own medium. Not so composers and painters who, assuming the unfamiliar and treacherous medium of the written word, enter into the society of letters, tiptoeing about, eager for acceptance, unsure of the welcome, and at some point certain to trip over the carpet, smashing the antique glass.

Of course, the best way for composers, painters, or sculptors to comment on their work is to compose more music, and paint more paintings, or mold more sculptures. And, when creative artists are asked to write about their own work, it is naive to expect timid impartiality expressed in terms of bland objectivity. A lifetime of the assumed rigors of artistic discipline, which must be the self-imposed burden of every artist, inevitably results in strong personal convictions, prejudice, idiosyncratic attitudes, fancy imaginings, and the occasional blunt statement of fact. Objectivity in the arts is an academic myth and a critic’s phantom. Generally, the more objective an artist’s comments seem, the more prejudicial are the hidden forces behind them. Making art is an act of faith in which objective knowledge plays a very small part.

Furthermore, whatever a work of art means, the meaning is embodied in the work itself and cannot be objectively explained or defended by the pedagogue, the critic, or even by the artist who created it without varying degrees of distortion, trivialization, and irrelevancy. Being in each case uniquely part of the work, the meaning cannot be properly “translated” into another medium. If, for example, composers could express the meaning of their music in words, or in graphs, or numbered equations, vectors, percentages, and all the other non-musical language infesting the music theory world, they would not be composers at all, but arithmeticians, statisticians, and analytical technicians. The meaning of each work of art becomes apparent to the artist through the process of its creation and that meaning is non-quantifiable, not measurable, not specifically definable, but is in another realm entirely: the realm of ART. The artist wishes to experience a work of art. It does not yet exist; the artist must create in order to experience it. In doing this, the artist labors primarily for an audience of one. To paraphrase Thoreau, the artist is one who, having nothing to make, makes something.

The most striking characteristic of the creative personality is IMAGINATION. It permeates the artist’s creative life and work at every level. The exercise of imagination in the creative artist is comparable to the uses of conventional research techniques by academic scholars only in that the creative artist does his or her “research” through the exercise of imagination. Through its power, intangible spiritual values, emotional feeling, and artistic memory combine with developing technique to create the corporeal reality of an art work. There, perceived and experienced as art, a further transformation occurs as the appreciative comprehension of the work carries one back to its generative spiritual and emotional resources, thereby constituting a cyclic unity in the arts: creation—perception—comprehension, which are thus a metaphor for life. Each is inseparable from its necessary counterpart: the artist—the artwork—the audience. As the creation of an art work progresses, assuming shape and form, the artist is at once the originator, recipient, and interpreter of its non-verbal, non-quantitative, unprovable message. With imagination as the pervasive aspect of the creative process, the artist moves simultaneously throughout the complete spectrum and, creating from the original spiritual and emotional compulsion, imagines the work, brings it into being, and experiences its effect as it evolves toward completion. This constitutes a closed cycle of artist, art, and audience, all within the person of the artist.

Within the surrounding and often hostile artistic, cultural, and economic environment, the creative artist quickly develops a strong sense of individuality and artistic independence. This is an attitude of self-recognition crucial to every artistic life. It may first occur in the early years of creative insight or it may develop somewhat later, but it finally becomes a psychological continuum in which the personality of the artist takes on an added dimension as composer, painter, sculptor, playwright, poet, or novelist. As most creative artists know, the early period of self-identification is also the time when one enters into a lifelong struggle with the traditions and demands of inherited cultural values, with the artist’s own expectations and limitations, and with the expressive and technical demands of the art to which the artist has become irretrievably committed.

The sophomoric aphorism which describes a philosopher as a blind person in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there also serves as an amusing metaphor for the creative artist. Rarely is a completed artwork clearly perceived at the time of its conception. The artist, working with the conjured raw materials of art, watches as the work assumes significance in its creative evolution. Its significance is not fully apparent during the creative process, and often the work emerges in its completed form with characteristics surprising even to the artist. Thus, it is possible for an artwork to be an object of study and wonderment even to its own maker and at last may bear little resemblance to the original concept (which in retrospect may remain an idealized illusion). It has been observed that an artist never knows what a work is until it is finished, and perhaps not even then. In contrast, those whose art-objects are repetitiously manufactured, know in advance what is to be fabricated and are willing to repeat the formulated process exclusively in terms of economic reward.

As everybody knows, the mechanism by which art is brought forth is called technique. It is often spoken and written of as if it were an entity separate, independent, and removable from the work in which it is purported be found, a sort of toolbox, a collection of artistic thingamabobs which the artist, with blithe agility busily assembles and reassembles into the work at hand, working from parts cannibalized from his own previous work and that of others. This is an amusing idea, but it is rarely the case. Technique is part of the building process of a work of art, unique and inseparable from it. As the work is completed the technique therein is absorbed into its organic fabric and cannot be removed and “used” again. The beginning of each new work presents its own elusive challenge, the resolution of which emerges during its evolutionary gestation. This is the reason that one reads repeatedly of the temporary loss of direction, the formative disorientation and puzzlement through which artists struggle in their efforts to shape a new work and to cause the revelation of its secrets. Technique is that which more than any other thing separates the professional from the amateur. It is also that which most closely relates the creative artist to the academic and craftsperson, though the widely disparate results in predictability keep them fundamentally separate in other ways.

The generative resources of music find expression through three elements: sonority, momentum, and form. Each organically inter-dependent with the others, these elements combine to create, in Aaron Copland’s felicitous phrase, a sonorous image which, when in perfect synthesis with artistic inspiration and expression, assumes an abstract beauty akin to the metaphysical insight we are told is to be found in higher mathematics. As the most profound of the temporal arts, music takes us beyond areas of direct cerebral communication into the realms of philosophical speculation involving subconscious association within the experience of psychological momentum in time. The sonorous drama potentially present in each musical work has the power to convey its listeners through experiences of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual intensity within the conscious and subconscious perception of time and space. Within the dynamic forces of music, the ebb and flow of its momentum, the changes of velocities, textures, and ranging pitch spectra, we experience an auditory analogy of expectation and fulfillment in our psychic lives. It is within the complex patterns of relationships among composer, performer, and listener that one again confronts the three verities in the arts: creation (composer), presentation (performer), and perceptive interpretation (audience).

In creating new music, composers draw upon three elemental resources: imagination, conscious memory, and the psychological subconscious. With the composer’s evolving skills and insights, these combine to create a rich and complex fabric of incipient possibilities as the compositional process continues. As in the other arts, compositional technique is not a separate collection of definable instructions, but rather it is an integral part of the compositional process, inextricably mixed with and enlivened by the heat-lighting play of imagination over the shifting sands of subconscious memory and conscious intention.

We are told that novelists have an extraordinary ability to recognize and retain seemingly insignificant moments in daily life which go unnoticed by others, but which are stored away by the writer for possible imaginative use and development: a face in the crowd, a sardonic remark by a stranger, an anecdote at the dinner table; any such small event may become an instant of vision for the story teller. Composers do the same thing with events in sound.

Consciously or subconsciously, they are always listening, hearing, watching, storing away seemingly insignificant musical events which pass unnoticed by others. A pre-rehearsal clarinet phrase, an unintended percussion effect or accident, a small sound in nature; in it all goes, stored in readiness for its future possible compositional use. This aspect of chance discovery is part of the natural alliance between composers and performers whose loving and infinitely varied approach to their instruments is a source of fascination and inspiration to composers. No composer works in a vacuum, no performer performs in the abstract; each is the natural ally of the other. Besides, composers usually have been performers, and the interaction between composing and performing remains essential to the realistic production of new music.

Taking time from composing to write about composing is a questionable activity. A composer should be composing; ideally, composing and performing; pragmatically, composing, performing, and/or teaching. It is dangerous to become entangled in the snare of writing about music when writing music itself and performing it should remain the compelling issue at hand. Ideally, a composer should be perpetually engaged in composition; thinking it, imagining it, working at it, immersed in it, and not adding to the great heap of words, diagrams, and arithmetical equations which currently pass for musical commentary and theory research.

But one rarely earns a living exclusively through musical composition. Not for long, not often, can one pay the rent or buy a car or pay for a baby with it. For the most part, teaching is how one does that, as do most composers, in spite of the draconian admonitions against it, usually by those who have found other equally disruptive and exhausting ways of supporting their composing obsession. The great majority of composers, like their performing colleagues, meet the economic demands of life with the small, often precarious incomes derived from teaching.

That may not be as restrictive as it sounds; composers are usually versatile musicians, and to an astonishing degree they find ways to balance their creative, performing, and teaching lives. Even when not performers in the professional sense, they usually find that if they separate and carefully balance their composing and teaching, their music gets written, their teaching taught, and their living earned.

It has been said that composition cannot be taught; and so it cannot by those who cannot teach it; nor, if the attempt is made by one who having much else to occupy mind and heart, finds it distasteful or boring; nor, if the students have no gift, no capacity or thrust of creative imagination (something rare, indeed, but possible). However, the fact remains: nearly all composers teach and have been taught, usually by other composers, somewhere by someone. The question is not whether it can be taught, but how the teaching goes. Not by prescribed formula, certainly, no closed theoretical systems, nor stylish imitations of past musics, as useful as that might be in other contexts. And surely not by parading before the bewildered student an endless procession of intimidating musical masterpieces which serve only to demonstrate the impossibility of attaining such heights.

The important, absolutely essential ingredient in teaching composition is the cultivation of the student’s own imagination within his or her own work. Teaching composition thus becomes a collaborative venture involving the work of the student, the combined imagination of both the student and the teacher, and the others in the class. It constitutes an exciting privilege and responsibility for both the teacher and the student as they imaginatively investigate the central-core of the student work at hand, finding its potential strengths, present weaknesses, and imaginative possibilities. In momentary cooperation in the imaginative concepts of the work, teacher and student approach it as if no other existed, concentrating solely on that work in that place at that time, and thus they replicate in the early stages of the student’s creative life the birthing process whereby imagination is transformed through emerging technique. It then becomes the task of the student to accept and bring these possibilities into compositional reality in preparation for performance and interpretive response.

Rare is the academic position in which a composer has the luxury of teaching only composition. By the very nature of the composer’s art and craft, teaching and performing skills are necessarily comprehensive and eclectic. They have ranged, until recently at least, from instrumental studio teaching through the teaching and administration of an array of academic curricula involving required courses in music history and theory to performing and lecturing off-campus in the surrounding community and elsewhere. The qualifying phrase, “until recently,” is present because a new and ominous factor has arisen confronting composers teaching in their vulnerable academic havens.

Until recently, the teaching of music theory was understood and accepted as the providence of the teaching composer, for who could know more about music theory-as-musicianship than those who presumably practice in their working craft of composition? Many composition jobs were not in composition at all, but were actually teaching positions in theory, music history, or instrumental lessons with composition as a minor sideline. This is no longer so. Formerly involving the pragmatic skills of musicianship, music theory is now associated with speculative research and has become truly theoretical in a literal sense. In its new academic role of companion-to-musicology it now pursues theoretical speculation in pseudo-scientific investigations of theory itself and appears in esoteric journals filled with graphs, equations, and formula, and is expressed in basic fractured academic English, all the more appropriate to the sciences than to the arts. This new development had serious consequences by diminishing opportunities for the employment of non-theoretical composers in music schools and departments. The duality of composition-theory as a two part unity has been severed, and “theory-specialists” now fill positions formerly occupied by composers. The inherent dichotomy between abstract speculation and the practical procedures of composition and performance presents a nearly impassable chasm separating the analytical and creative temperaments. The precarious position of the composer in academia, never as secure as popular myth would have it, becomes even less secure and is each year further undermined by administrative procedures in evaluation often wildly inappropriate to the arts in general and to composers and performers in particular.

Irrelevant standards of academic merit, grantsmanship, and political success are applied to the work of teaching composers, often not on the basis of the quality of the work, but in recognition of what happens to it, which is to say, its visibility. Thus, abstract research, especially when supported by a grant resulting in a published article in abstract theoretical speculation, is more likely to be viewed as visible proof of excellence than an unperformed original composition or an unacknowledged locally performed work denied significant recognition. Composers are now being forced into patterns of professional activity often at odds with their natural artistic gifts. Merely finding time to compose is further complicated by the expectation that the composer is to research and publish research articles, spend hours filling out grant applications and dredging up letters of recommendation to go with them, because these are the things which are now recognizable achievements of the teaching composer. Some composers are rather good at this new balancing act of academic grantsmanship, theory publication, and composing. But by thus neglecting their art, composers are now often judged not on the quality of their compositions so much as on the success of their grant applications.

Administrative pressure in grantsmanship places the composer in the demeaning position of evaluation in terms of grants-application success rather than compositional merit. It is time for creative artists to re-examine the personal cost of these Faustian bargains struck daily by the few and so eagerly sought by so many. At the moment composers seem to be in a maze of diversionary activity generated by the demands of grants committees, academic evaluation procedures, and government arts councils with their attendant computerized arts bureaucracies. Struggling to maintain their individual artistic integrity, composers must now be content with a game-show atmosphere wherein the prizes are grants, awards, commissions, and possibly tenure.

Serious choices have to be made. For composers the demands of composition, performing, teaching, administration grantsmanship, and generally “keeping up” constitute a formidable burden. The criterion of who is and is not a composer must finally be determined by one’s ability to protect and proceed with the art of composing. The demands of composition, second perhaps only to personal obligatory ties to loved ones, must take precedence over all other aspects of personal and professional life. Always on guard, protecting one’s inner creativity from the daily onslaughts of destructive influences and outright attacks, the composer has a profound ethical and moral obligation to creative integrity in the arts. Whatever the means of economic survival, chosen or forced, whether in the shifting sands of academia, the impermanence of orchestral residencies, or the fleeting infusions of grant money, it is the ethical, moral choice which relentlessly confronts the composer and every creative artist.

Artists, driven as we are by the need to create, soon find ourselves in a struggle between our art and a surrounding apathetic environment. In spite of the resulting personal conflict and struggle, composers manage to communicate their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives to a mostly indifferent public and often doing so without the occasionally enabling mechanisms of the art world itself.

In doing so their work passes through three evolving stages: one, the original concept (often at first merely a vague and ill-defined notion); two, the difficult often prolonged task of bringing that artistic image into physically perceptible reality; and three, the presentation of the work whereby it is retranslated into the personal images and conceptions of those experiencing it. This is the great cycle of artistic creation that in music may be described as composition, performance, and listening, each interdependent upon, in, and through the other.


Roger Hannay (b. 1930) is one of six composers commissioned by The North Carolina Symphony Orchestra for its forthcoming 75th anniversary celebrations. A member of ASCAP since 1964, he is now professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

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