Tabula Plena

Tabula Plena

When I was much younger I was unbelievably more prolific as a composer than I am now—in high school, I composed a three-movement piano concerto in only nine days. Nowadays I consider it a good year if I complete a piece of music. Admittedly I don’t compose full-time, and I’m rarely in situations where there’s intense deadline pressure to crank something out; those rare times I am in that situation, I’m usually very uncomfortable (even though I love improvising).

So, you might be asking (unless the above is true for you as well), what went wrong with my compositional development? For starters, I have a lot less time on my hands. But also, when I was younger I was full of a bloated sense of self-importance and, as a result, was a lot less critical of my own work than I later became. (That nine-day concerto has never been performed and hopefully never will be.)

But another arguably more significant factor, I think, is that I wasn’t nearly as informed about all the music that was out there. Therefore, the weight of all of the world’s pre-existing music was not something I felt compelled to have to live up to. Not that I imagine any of my work to be as important as name-your-favorite-composer-in-the-canon. But I do feel if someone’s going to invest the time and energy to play it or listen to it, it better not be a waste of time. Of course, these things are completely subjective. One person’s waste of time is another’s epiphany, and vice versa. But the more music I come to know, which at this point is quite a lot, the harder I find it to compose.

Reading Michael Kurtz’s biography of Sofia Gubaidulina, which was finally published in English translation last year, I came across the fascinating account of how she became a composer. At the age of six, her parents purchased a baby grand piano for her and her sister, believing that every educated person should have some musical training. (They were not particularly well off, but back in 1930s Kazan, capital city of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, grands were cheaper than uprights because they were too big for most apartments.) Sofia was taught to play simple children’s pieces with only a two octave range, but her curiosity very quickly led her to explore all sorts of other sounds, from the highest and lowest registers to even the insides of the piano. This was miraculously at the same time that, unbeknownst to her, Cage was first preparing a piano. Gubaidulina naïvely assumed that the pieces she was learning were the only music that existed, so she started to compose in order to take greater advantage of the piano’s rich sonic palatte and offer people something else to play. According to the biography, she remembers saying, “Since mankind suffers such deprivation, I’ll do some composing myself.”

So perhaps to initiate the creative process, familiarity with what is out there can be more of a hindrance than a source of inspiration. Yet at the same time, following such a path of ignorance-is-bliss is ultimately an exercise in solipsism. There are no works that Gubaidulina currently acknowledges composed before she was in her late 20s and had moved to Moscow where, while remaining an icoloclast, she was immersed in the center of Soviet musical activities.

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10 thoughts on “Tabula Plena

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    How many forks in the road here? :)

    First, I hope that early piece is played. There is always something to be learned from early discoveries.

    Second, I wonder about the subtext here. The recent “there’s too much music” fear posited by barn-door composers? What are you really asking?

    Third, is not knowing and ignoring the same thing? (see above) Not every piece need break ground, does it? To me, the sharpening of focus or increased depth of exploration is well worth hearing.

    Fourth, are you suggesting that if it’s not hard to compose (i.e., over-the-shouldered), it’s a waste of time to hear or perform (your implicit chacun à son goût notwithstanding)?

    Fifth (and I think there was a scent of this in the archiving thread), is the artist really the best judge of what to suppress?

    And last, what characteristics of the events leading to the completion of a composition (i.e., time, demands, deadlines, requirements, experience, rejection) make a piece acceptable to you (or not)?


  2. pgblu

    youthful misconceptions
    When I was young, I didn’t understand the concept of a ‘composer’ — I just assumed that composers were the people who wrote down music that had existed for an eternity. The later composers simply wrote down things the earlier ones hadn’t gotten to, or perhaps hadn’t realized were worth writing down.

    I wonder if anyone else had a similar misconception when they were young.

  3. William Osborne

    I recently read about an art professor who was heading out the door to work. His young daughter asked him where he was going. He said I am going to go teach students how to draw. She said, “You mean they forgot?”

    Are the greatest composers those who don’t forget how its done? And now that I think of it, is there a relationship between excessive calculation and stylistic cronyism?

    William Osborne

  4. jchang4

    Screwing things up is a virtue… Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.


    Perhaps you should keep the “scientific/analytical” part of your brain at bay, and let your intuition take over. In other words, maybe you’re over-thinking it. Maybe you should try living without the “rules” and the “responsibility” and see what shit comes from it. I mean, why do you think your early piano concerto is rubbish? Did you think so back then? What’s changed? Is it necessarily a change for the better? Where did this “responsibility” thing come from? Why do you have to follow it?

  5. seedmuse

    Forgive yourself…
    Frank, I think you need to forgive yourself your youthful notions and know that you in fact do compose every day. You are a creator in every way, every day it just so happens to be in the form of NewMusicBox, an amazing accomplishment and one for which you will be remembered.

    Enjoy the music writing you do and don’t beat yourself up for not doing more. We’re on this planet for such a short time we all need to remember what Joseph Campbell said and, “follow your bliss.” Let someone else fight that dragon, you’ve got your own to contend with.

    Matthew Pierce

  6. Frank J. Oteri

    There does seem to be some kind of synchronicity (which at first escaped my notice) between what I’ve written above, this week’s provocation from Colin Holter, and another interesting discussion that’s been going on over at Sequenza21’s Composer Forum. But while some might posit my remarks somehow connect to a de-archiving instinct, which seems to be our era’s bandwagon, rest assured that for me this is certainly not the case. (Don’t worry Dennis, my credo will always be: “Bring on more barn-door composers.”)

    Rest assured, I have no plans to ever throw away my first piano concerto, but I also no longer harbor over-bloated illusions about it. If someone really wanted to perform it, I wouldn’t turn them down; I tend to be pretty accommodating. But I wouldn’t actively promote it. Looking back on it now I think it was hubris to create it in nine days. It’s got a lot of problems. That doesn’t mean someone else can’t create a great work in so short a time. Mozart certainly did and I continue to be baffled at how fast Elliott Carter is writing music these days. (When I asked him about it recently, he delightedly exclaimed that he’s finally learned how to write Elliott Carter’s music.)

    Also, from my vantage point as a music historian I think it’s important to preserve whatever we can. Not to compare myself with them, but I find it endlessly frustrating that Brahms and Varèse destroyed sketches; I think there’s a lot I could have learned from studying them. Similarly there’s a lot I learn by looking at my own early work, but I wouldn’t presume to foist it on others. There’s a big difference between erasing history and being selective.

    But what I was really getting at above, and I don’t have a definitive answer for it is the issue of knowledge simultaneously honing and hindering artistic endeavors. Matthew, thank you for your kind words but please know that I am not beating myself up here for not composing more, nor am I saying that one should not be as prolific as possible. Composers like J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert composed a ton of music and the lion’s share of it continues to be treasured. I feel that composers such as Silvius Leopold Weiss, C.P.E. Bach, Darius Milhaud, Heitor Villa Lobos, Bohuslav Martinu, Alan Hovhaness, Henry Cowell, and many, many others have as well, but I sometimes wonder if their vast compositional outputs have gotten in the way of their work getting out there in the way that it should. And yes, those thoughts are related to my currently housing the scores of Gabriel von Wayditch who was extremely prolific and is virtually unknown by the general public. From what I learned about him from the family members of his I came to know was that he was extremely knowledgeable about the music of the past but was never connected to any “scene.” This was probably good for his creativity and compositional confidence, but maybe bad for his music’s exposure. As for its development, I look forward to studying the scores in greater depth. From what I’ve examined over the years (a fraction), I’m quite impressed.

    But I’d like to bring it back to Gubaidulina, which is who triggered my thoughts here in the first place. I continue to be fascinated by the idea that she started composing music in order to explore realms she believed music hadn’t explored (being only exposed to rudimentary learning pieces). In the everything’s-happened-already era of post-modernism, that impulse seems harder to validate.

  7. Chris Becker

    Disclaimer: I am only speaking for myself here. There are many other ways to look at these questions Frank and Colin are mulling over.

    I have a pretty fluid “dub-like” conception of what a “composition” is or is not and as a result find myself composing pretty much every day and performing my own works (or collaborative pieces) once or twice a month for the public. This notion of a “double bar line” is pretty alien to me these days :)

    Working consistently with dancers, improvisers, and musicians from New York’s so-called “indie” rock scene has required I throw out some of my ideas of what a “composer” is and does in order to get the music happening. I think some people who compose music for film and television might be able to relate to this as well – think less and decide what is and what isn’t working. Try to be open to what is speaking (musically) to your fellow musicians, the dancers, and/or your audience.

    All that said, when applying for grants I often have to present my music with a level of pretense so that it somehow fits into this narrow ideas of “composition” we still – in America – in the 21st f—ing century – insist on perpetuating. “Will your piece be premiered by a legitimate ensemble?” “When is the date of the premiere?” Puh-LEEZE!!!

    I do not think you should worry about output (i.e. how many pieces you write in a year) and/or the length of time you put into creating a piece of work. That can get unhealthy real quick…

  8. rtanaka

    Pieces take a long longer to write for me now too. Part of it is just time, since working full-time generally means there’s less time to compose. But I don’t have the same kind of vigor I used to when I first started.

    While in school I was sort of experimenting with lots of different styles and techniques — I was mostly trying to get ideas out of my head at the time. Nowadays I have a fairly clear idea of what I want to say, so most the time is spent on conveyance. I get my fix of intuitive gratification from improvising, which I do every day. Composing can be a pretty neurotic thing, so I think it helps keep myeself in balance. :)

  9. philmusic

    I would think that our relationship to other musics and our own is in constant flux. So many changes occur in our lives both professional and otherwise; expectations, opportunities, relationships –anyway my music and my ears has changed with them.

    I never thought that one “time” was better than another though hopefully I still have a few more to go.

    I suppose the difficult thing is to try to recapture one of our earlier incarnations intact because memory is also a lense. Then again, perhaps it would be no harder than to imagine the music of the future. (not the old “music of the future” the new–oh forget it!).

    Phil Fried

    University of Lilliput Small minds for small decisions

  10. curioman

    It’s Personal
    Good article. I empathize with you. In thinking about his myself, I’ve come to believe that composition is ultimately about personal awareness, consciousness, and growth. It isn’t much good to measure yourself against what’s “out there.” It’s much saner to measure yourself against what’s “in here,” or better, “who’s in here?” In other words, when composing, it’s more valuable to ask, “who am I”, “who am I becoming”, “who have I been”, “how am I different”. And “How is what I’m writing now different than what I wrote then and why?” This is the truer nature of compositional development. With this understanding, knowledge of other’s work is not a hinderance to artistic endeavors. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing or has done. The only thing that truly matters as an artist is where you are in relation to yourself.


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