On Not Composing

On Not Composing


“What are you working on now?”

This is the default question that arises when two or more composers gather in the same place and, at least in my experience, I’ve found few—if any—composers willing to admit when we’re not writing anything. No one’s willing to answer “nothing.”

True, there’s rarely nothing happening for a working composer: maybe there was a spectacular premiere four months ago, or you finished writing a new piece a few weeks ago, or there’s a concert of your music coming up. It’s much easier to say, “Oh, I just finished a commission for [this ensemble]” or “I’m getting ready for a premiere” than to admit that we’re taking a break from creating. Universities perpetuate the need to constantly compose, or appear to be constantly composing, with weekly composition lessons and end-of-semester juries. For the rare subset of composers who have no shortage of inspiration and write daily, I imagine these arbitrary deadlines present no problem.

For me, though, when I’ve recently completed a set of pieces—because usually deadlines bunch together, and I’ll finish several new pieces in a row that are all due, say, September 1—I need a break. I don’t compose anything, usually for at least several months. I don’t feel an immediate need to keep composing, and so I don’t.

When asked what I’m working on, though, I become defensive, telling myself that no successful composer admits when they are not working. Instead of confessing that the last few weeks have been devoted to teaching, applying to contests, and watching the whole first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in two days, I’ll mention a project I just completed, or a trip I just took to a premiere of my work.

It has taken years to recognize that this period of rest is absolutely vital to my process as a composer, and that I don’t have a choice in the matter: this is how I work best. Before this realization, I was afraid every time I took a break from composing that it was because I’d forgotten how to compose, or lost the desire to do so. But the period of rest is necessary. At the end of a yoga practice, savasana (or Corpse Pose) allows the body to rest and incorporate what it has learned. It’s time to acknowledge that in a creative practice, a period of rest can be every bit as necessary.

I use this time to go back and make small but important edits on the pieces I’ve finished, or to make parts for an upcoming premiere. I take care of small tasks I’ve been putting off for months, professional and personal. I research new competitions, grant applications, and residencies to which I should apply. I read books that end up feeding and shaping my artistic practice: recently, that’s included Dominick Argento’s Catalogue Raisonne as Memoir, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, and Liz Lerman’s Hiking the Horizontal. I get back in touch with conductors about my work. I update my website. I read and re-read texts I’m planning to set to music for months before I actually put a note to paper. I think about what I’m going to write next when the inevitable need to compose comes back. I finally trust in this process: it always comes back.

In re-reading poetry by a favorite collaborator of mine, Annie Finch, during this most recent span of not-composing, I was struck by her translation of Andree Chedid’s poem “In Praise of Emptiness,” from Annie’s book Spells:

We need
The empty
To find
The full
So that the dream
So that the breath
Takes in

So that the fruit
We need
All the hollows

And the want.

The poem is on my list of poetry to set to music—but not right now, and I’m going to answer honestly the next time someone asks what I’m currently working on. I’m not composing anything, but I’m working on everything.


Dale Trumbore

Hailed by The New York Times for her “soaring melodies and beguiling harmonies,” Dale Trumbore has received commissions, performances, and awards from organizations including ACDA, ACME, Center City Opera Theater, Chanticleer, Inscape Chamber Orchestra, the Kronos Quartet, and VocalEssence. Hear Trumbore’s music at     

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6 thoughts on “On Not Composing

  1. Manny

    Great article. I think it’s a cultural norm that we’re supposed to be at work, putting pen/pencil to paper every minute, every day, week in-week out, all year around. I think composers and instrumentalists can benefit from a brief, or even extended period of rest, reflection, planning, and tending to other work related to our art.

  2. Brian

    Not composing is the only way you can cultivate the proper state of mind to compose great things– don’t underestimate the significance of not constantly producing.

  3. Connor Helms

    If you are constantly creating, you have no time to absorb others’ work, thus limiting your potential imagination and context. The scientific method always includes a perusal of the literature. You need time to live and experience, like a gonzo journalist or stand up comedian.

  4. Victor Trejo

    Hmmm, insightful although its unclear.

    Would you agree or disagree that there is a difference between not composing onto paper and not composing in our mind?

  5. Alexandra Gardner

    This entire series of posts is great, Dale – congrats!! Just a couple weeks ago another composer asked me what I was working on, and immediately followed up with, “Oh that’s an obnoxious question, sorry!” So people are reading you then! ;-)

    I totally endorse the rest period after an intense time of work – it’s really helpful to recharge one’s energy, and to reconnect with life in the outside world. A lot of composers have been led to believe that if one is not writing every single day, then one is not a “real” or a “serious” composer, but I think that’s a lot of hooey. We get tuckered out sometimes! However, I don’t think a day has passed that I don’t have music on my mind in some way or other. I think sometimes that’s enough to maintain musical energy.

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