Going It Alone

Going It Alone

It seems like it’s finally nearing completion, but for the last three months I’ve been struggling to complete a three-minute musical composition for solo saxophone. The fact that this has taken so long to do seems somewhat counterintuitive: It’s not like it’s a large-scale piece either in duration or number of participants. So why is it so hard for me?

Part of it is that there are so many other activities that compete for my potential composing time—which is relatively minuscule already. But this is ultimately a lame excuse, because William Schumann—who ran Juilliard and then Lincoln Center—carved out 600 hours a year for writing music during those years and in that designated time managed to create four symphonies and scads of smaller works. I imagine “Bill” (I feel I can call him that after reading Joseph W. Polisi’s bio of him) could have knocked off this solo piece in a couple of days.

Part of it is definitely prolificity. I feel like an old man as I’m typing this, but I was a much faster composer when I was younger. (But I’m only 44—which is basically just the beginning of middle age, right?) I once spewed out a piano concerto—orchestration and all—in only nine days, and this was a clean handwritten manuscript. There was no computer notation software back then. Admittedly the concerto was never performed and probably never should be. The speed of my youth was definitely related to being less critical about what I was writing. Yet I think I’m equally critical of my writing when it comes to words and this essay you are currently reading probably took me less than an hour to write.

Of course, constant practice hones one’s comfort level, which has a direct correlation with productivity. I can write words so fast because I do so all the time. Few composers (and I’m not among them) are so in demand that they need to be composing morning, noon, and night. That said, I have encountered several composers who create massive amounts of music all the time whether anyone asked them to or not—I envy them yet at the same time am baffled by their fortitude, saddened that so much work goes under-recognized, and occasionally traumatized that there aren’t more effective ways to get all this music out there. All of this is somewhat creatively paralyzing as well.

But what is perhaps more of a factor than any of these things is that, at least for me, writing effective music containing only one line is extremely difficult. How do you create something that can stand on its own and not sound like someone playing a solo that’s supposed to go along with a Music Minus One recording without the recording? If you predominantly compose pitch-centric music in which vertical movement is largely defined against the backdrop of horizontal events (the old melody shaped by harmony paradigm), what happens when there’s no horizontal? How do you imply horizontal movement in a monophonic texture without it seeming like it is forced? Is it ever possible to not seem like a denizen of Flatland failing to convey a non-accessible third dimension?

This kind of composition is actually something I’ve never attempted before. When I was an undergrad at Columbia, my composition teacher Max Lifchitz suggested I write a solo flute piece, claiming it would be a great exercise for me and would likely get many performances because such pieces are always in demand. I now rue the day I categorically refused to do the assignment, declaring that such a piece would be antithetical to my compositional aesthetics. Nowadays, at least, I’ve learned to never say never. But perhaps the thing I still have yet to learn—just like everyone else who has suffered from writer’s block—is not to worry so much.

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4 thoughts on “Going It Alone

  1. Kyle Gann

    Frank –

    I have always found it bizarre that almost every composition class immediately assigns a solo flute piece as the students’ first assignment (or oboe, or other melody instrument) when a good, memorable solo flute piece is just about the most difficult thing in the world to write.

    Reply
  2. dusman

    composing time
    I find some things to be a bad mix with composing–administration for one, and certain types of writing as well. I just ended an administration position that went on way too long, and was amazed at how much easier it was to compose once that was out of my life.

    As to short pieces, there never seems to be short composing time! I accepted a commission for a student piano piece that I thought I could knock out in a few weeks…needless to say, I was late!

    Reply
  3. philmusic

    Frank I read this post twice to see if I could add anything of interest.
    Perhaps its this:

    Perhaps a solo work might have all the gestural elements that any work might have. Bach used polyphonic melody to great effect and thats a difficult technique to master in any (or at any) age. We can now use visual/theatrical techniques in solo works the possibilities are daunting if you think about it.

    As an improviser/composer I create solo works by the bag full.

    It’s just that I don’t think about it.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s page

    Reply
  4. danvisconti

    I’ve always been slightly amazed at the amount of music I used to crank out when I was just beginning to try out composing; at times, I’ve even pined away for that same ease and assurance.

    Then again, I wasn’t particularly critical of those early works, nor did I attempt anything particularly adventurous. So if now I sometimes feel more compositionally “constipated”, I’d like to think it’s partly because I know a little more about how to put a piece together.

    I used to think that composing would get easier the more I did it, but it never actually does. There’s no “bar” that we’re ever going to reach…each success brings with it knowledge and experiences that raise that bar even higher than we could have imagined.

    That may come off as kind of Sisyphean, but it’s actually one of my favorite things about composing.

    Reply

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