…Or, how I ran out of time to care about what other people think.
What’s your plan here? What’s your voice going to be? Is this music going to be current enough? How derivative will people hear you as? Are you going to play that game where there’s enough dissonance to prove that you are somehow “aware”?
…What are you even doing?
I bet these questions of mine are a common scenario that a lot of composers consider while they’re writing a new piece of music. It happens continuously as you navigate your way, bar by bar. You’ll be writing something, getting into the nuances of whatever has caught you ear, and the seed of doubt will creep in and distract your compositional flow.
I definitely think about this when I start and I usually approach the first question by listening to a lot of other people’s music to get my bearings. The problem with all of this of course is that it can terrorize you and inflict sleepless nights as you toss and turn, searching for an answer.
However with my commercial music production company, Found Objects, I face these first notes of a composition everyday but I don’t even notice these questions. Yes, it’s often a different kind of music, but it’s still music and in my experience it requires just as much focus as if I were writing an art song, etc.
At Found Objects, we write a lot of music. Your job is to get it right the first time and to do it better than 20 other composers and 5 other companies. In the best outcome, you pass the finish line with a win and then move on to the next one. It’s so temporary that you begin to forget what you’ve written the week before. Even if it’s a composition that explores elements I find interesting outside of the commercial medium, I sometimes forget it happened. This constant push to be more and more productive makes your attachment to what you’ve written minimal.
It was an interesting challenge to face coming from a conservatory-like atmosphere at the Yale School of Music and even from my own previous thoughts on the matter of composition. I always felt we were taught to suffer over the act of composing with thought and time. With every note you needed a reason and with every other note you need a direction. I would spend a few months writing a 12-minute solo piano piece. This now sounds like a crazy proposition.
As I moved further and further along the path of experience, music production, and the world of turning projects around in a few days, I learned to block out these concerns and focus on getting it done. Or else.
But that doesn’t mean you lower your standard of quality. I still maintain my attention to proper voice leading and orchestration. I even explore thematic development through rhythmic and melodic retrograde. In reality, it was more that I learned to ignore my doubts and fear of relevance and instead focused on completing the task at hand.
Here are 2 examples of a 6 part campaign that my business partner and composer Jay Wadley and I completed in an intense week for an IBM project:
This abandon flowed from my day’s work into my night’s compositions, because there isn’t time to write other music during the day, of course. There’s a certain utility that I picked up that has since informed my writing of new music. Nothing is sacred and most things are functional.
So when I was writing Potential Energies, a 50-minute ballet, the process began at around 8pm and I left for the day around 11pm. That meant that for those 3 hours, when not occupied by social events like industry parties and gatherings, I had to move quickly.
This added up to a really thrilling experience as well as an interesting open collaboration with the director Sugar Vendil. There were two instances when I was told to scrap a piece and start over. This was a very strange request for the usually autocratic artistic role of a composer. But I did it and moved forward without looking back. That music is lost in the backup folders of the Potential Energies sessions.
What’s your plan here? What’s your voice going to be? Is this music going to be current enough? How derivative will people hear you as?
I figure the best way out of this is to just start writing and “Do it live!” to quote a Fox News hack.