As a living composer, I’m faced with my birth year in nearly every concert program. Every time I see that number—and usually it’s listed alongside composers with a death date, too—I’m aware that my time, and what I can compose during it, is limited.
I recently finished my longest work yet, a 35-minute piece for chorus made up of several 2- to 4-minute movements and one 8-minute movement. Writing a 35-minute piece could be intimidating, but writing a 3-minute movement is not. That’s largely how I approached the piece; I’d work on one shorter movement, then another. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to apply this strategy on a much broader scale: to break into movements not only compositions, but everything I want to achieve in my life and career, approaching a life in music as one would approach writing a long composition.
A long-form piece is judged as a whole; there’s no need to express what you want from the piece in a single movement. If we apply this to a lifetime, then one composition doesn’t need to contain everything you have to say, sum up your feelings about the current state of new music, or succinctly capture your worldview. Over a life-long body of work, there’s room for subtlety and nuance; we don’t have to demonstrate in 4 minutes, or even 35 minutes, that we know how to write music.
Not every piece has to be perfect, either. The music you’re writing now may have flaws that you’ll later want to change, and there’s room for that, too. Not every piece even has to be good; some works may be more like prototypes, allowing you to try something out and potentially fail while honing that idea for a later, better piece. There’s time to let ideas unfold, and there’s room for rest.
A career functions much the same way. We don’t need to imagine that one big performance or one big award will be responsible for making our entire career. Instead, we can ask ourselves what we’ll try to achieve over the course of a life spent composing. If we view our writing as part of a life-long body of work, then when we set goals for what we’d like to accomplish, we can stop aiming for things we have no control over—like, say, a particular ensemble programming our work next season—and instead ask what we’d like to have happen during our lifetime. How will we pace ourselves over thirty, or sixty, or eighty years of writing music? What music do we want to write, and what will we express with that music?
Given the current political climate, most composers I know are asking ourselves whether every piece of work we compose should now express our political views. Moving forward, should every one of our pieces advocate for social justice? Maybe so, but I’m not sure that every piece we write needs to do so in a big, dramatic way in order to make a statement. Think of a longer composition; we’re able to recognize the larger themes in that work even if those themes aren’t present in every single movement. We take the work as a whole.
Bear with me on a brief tangent: I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years. On a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t feel like my personal decision is affecting the world in any huge way, or in any way, period. By not ordering chicken for lunch last Wednesday, I know I haven’t directly saved some hypothetical chicken’s life. If I cast my decision over the course of a lifetime, though, my attitude shifts completely. What sort of impact can I make over a lifetime of choosing not to eat meat?
This concept extends to the current need for representation of more composers who are not white and/or male and/or dead in classical music programming, too. A single concert with a non-white or non-male (or non-dead) composer on the program may not initially come across as advocacy, but if an ensemble regularly chooses to program this way, over the course of many seasons they’ll expose thousands of audience members to the concept that not all composers are dead white men. This, I’d argue, would make much more of a lasting impact than any single concert dedicated to this purpose.
In your creative lifetime, what are you going to accomplish with the music you choose to perform, write, or program? Looking back on the work that you’ve created in the past, what patterns are already present? You don’t have to be an activist in every piece, the same way that your 8-minute piece for solo violin doesn’t have to include every possible extended string technique. But if everything you do advocates for even a small aspect of what you believe, what kind of impact will you create over the course of your life?