I only attended three concerts this past week. Instead, during the other nights, I attempted to work on my own music—with varying degrees of success ranging from very productive to not productive at all. New York City has way too many distractions, and it’s hard to say “no” when people want to meet up and talk about music. That’s why my normally scheduled composing time, from 6:00-8:00 a.m., has been so effective. To date, no one has attempted to divert me from my own compositional work at that hour. I realize as I type this that I’m probably inviting some kind of intrusion before too long, but hopefully not. And truth be told, my usual regimen has often been more like 6:30 to 8:00 because when I wake up and immediately walk into my studio to turn on the computer, I inevitably check email before I do anything else; that’s a wormhole that usually kills at least half an hour. This morning, in a rare moment of willpower, I refused to check my email and as a result I pretty much worked out the final order of a sequence of 108 deceptive cadences that had been bothering me for days. (The reason I was fixated on this particular compositional scheme is, alas, a story for another time.)
I feel particularly good about my early morning strategy even though most of the rest of this month is more or less a wash. On Wednesday I head to Minneapolis for the 2012 Conference of Chorus America and the American Composers Forum’s concurrent “ChoralConnections” convening. Then the following week I’ll be in Greece for the 2012 General Assembly of the International Association of Music Information Centres. I’ve yet to figure out a way to eke out composing time when I’m on the road. Reading this, you might imagine that I’m somewhat frustrated that my composing time is so limited and circumscribed. But nothing could actually be further from the truth. Without the exposure to all the music I hear in concerts and on the recordings I acquire when I’m on the road, as well as the conversations about music I have with people wherever I happen to be, my creative fuel would be severely depleted.
Back in the mid-1980s I worked as a high school teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language). I had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to get to where I taught (Thomas Jefferson High School, which was deep in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood called East New York, more than an hour’s commute away from midtown Manhattan, where I then lived). But I finished work in the early afternoon and had the entire summer free to compose (something that seems very appealing as we approach the end of another school year). Yet I accomplished almost nothing compositionally during that time. While I credit the experience with giving me invaluable life lessons and transforming me from an impractical and somewhat arrogant teenager into a mature adult (at least in comparison with who I had been), teaching offered me very little in the way of musical nourishment. In fact, during those years I frequently considered abandoning writing music altogether since it seemed like such an effete activity given all the harsh realities I came to learn about through my exposure to the lives of recent immigrants.
Of course, the creation of new work, as well as how we respond to it, is inevitably influenced by everything that goes on around us. This is something I finally understood when I went to grad school and immersed myself in the study of ethnomusicology, which is what I did immediately after deciding not to continue my career as a high school teacher. I also realize now that I probably never would have pursued the study of music of different cultures had I not personally interacted with people from other parts of the world on a daily basis for several years. The music I now write, as well as the rest of the activities I do that divert me from composing, are by-products of that ethnomusicological immersion and, the more I think about it, the years I spent teaching. So for me, there is ultimately no conflict between writing music and either listening to or advocating for the music of others; in fact, in my world view, these activities are thoroughly symbiotic. That said, twenty-four hours is probably not the ideal length for my day, but that’s something I have no power to change.