Like most people who write music, I have invested a large portion of my life in learning the craft of composition. In order to create the best work possible, I have studied how different instruments produce noise and how their repertoire exploits those sounds; the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of works by a variety of musicians; and the influence of science, politics, and other arts on the voice of specific composers, among many other seemingly esoteric pursuits. Along the way, I’ve clued into many tricks of the trade, the sorts of sonic figures that inexorably elicit predetermined responses. Loud fast repeated notes with syncopated accents convey excitement while slowly evolving hushed harmonies suggest peaceful contemplation. Most composers can quickly describe several of these gestures along with pieces that exploit them to their utmost.

These stock figures became clichés because they work. Since we immediately recognize their efficacy, they tempt us to abscond with them and assimilate them into our own pieces. When we do this, they reward our efforts by evoking exactly the reactions that we intend, but when I’ve followed this path my resulting efforts have always felt less than adequate to me. These compositions objectively work, but to me they smack of plagiarism, feeling foreign to my personal artistic voice. And so I’ve tried to move away from the time-honored gestures towards more personal solutions.

Over the course of my creative career, I’ve discovered several individual artifices that are less widely shared but produce similar results. Certain performance techniques, harmonic progressions, and shifts in mood that define specific formal structures began to feel oddly detached to me, as if they were dropped in for effect from other works of mine instead of emanating from the heart of the composition itself. Other gestures—some birdcalls, other harmonic progressions and approaches to formal structure—seemed more essential to my personal voice even when they crop up in many of my pieces.

Recently, I’ve been trying to strip all the tricks out of my music. I’ve been attempting to lay bare the essence of my musical expression, to write exactly the sounds that need to be there without layering any of the personal or universal contrivances that I’ve often resorted to in moments of doubt. The resulting compositions feel much more personal to me, and also much more exposed.

Last weekend, I attended the premiere of a new work of mine for solo piano. In many ways, this piece represents the culmination of the first stage of this compositional direction: it obsesses over a single musical idea without resorting to any of my typical devices that assure listeners will find it interesting. It presents my basic ideas with all adornment removed, naked for everyone to hear.

I was shocked to find that I was more nervous than at any premiere in many years, even though I had worked with the pianist and knew that he would perform beautifully. My heart raced, my breathing grew shallow and fast, and afterwards I was a bit shaky for several hours. I attribute this to the vulnerability I felt in revealing the essence of my artistic thoughts, but I find it difficult to pinpoint from where this defenselessness emanated. Afterwards, I realized that my emotional state wasn’t affected by the positive or negative reactions of any individual (and I did sense strong responses along both tracks), nor from the collective audience. My fear seemed to arise from the thrill of danger itself, from the awareness that I was revealing aspects of myself that had previously remained hidden and was doing so in the most public way possible. It was like being unmasked.

In the end, I found this experience of artistic nakedness to be utterly exhilarating. I have never thought of myself as a thrill jockey, and yet I am very much looking forward to further adventures in this type of risk-seeking behavior.

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One thought on “Naked

  1. Philipp Blume

    David, this is a very interesting post.

    Just today I was talking with a student and telling them that structural determinants (at the risk of putting words in your mouth, you call them ‘tricks’) other than ‘pure intuition’ are on the one hand useful because they help decide things & help you get a handle on your material. But on the other hand, all such structural/formal choices (you call them ‘clichés’ — and here I make no distinction between interesting and uninteresting structures) are also things you can hide behind, so if a skeptic comes along and declares a musical passage that you’ve written to be dubious, you can say “But this is the golden section” or “this is the retrograde inversion” or “this is a quote from Ravel’s Tzigane” — all of which are shorthand for “Don’t blame me!”

    (Such conversations never happen, of course, but I’m just highlighting the dual nature of ‘structure’ as both carrier of meaning and means of justification…)

    So, it seems that I’m saying: good for you! Cast off the shackles of yesterday!

    And yet:

    I’m concerned that you might be building up a mythology around ‘true expression’ and then using it to delude yourself. I’d propose that there’s no such thing as a musical idea that isn’t a trick. There’s no difference in the sonic realm between authenticity and pseudo-authenticity, between truth and (Stephen Colbert’s) truthiness. Intuition is merely unexcavated structure, a trick that you’ve decided is far too elemental and personal to admit it’s a trick. “This is me, the real me” is shorthand for “This is so personal that I don’t want to analyze it for fear of hurting myself”. But what difference does that make to a listener who is not you, I wonder? Who is the one determining whether you’re taking a risk? You or me?

    Perhaps superfluous disclaimer: Note that these questions are unrelated to whether your piece was a moving, meaningful experience for other people, i.e., it’s a question about aesthetics and not about quality.


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