A cropped still from the IBM commercial for Think Forum - Cloud
Right Place, Right Time

Right Place, Right Time

…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:

IBM: Cloud

IBM: Watson

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.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

5 thoughts on “Right Place, Right Time

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Glad to see this post. It’s been a while since productivity has been the focus of a discussion. Though commonplace in film, it’s still a dirty word in nonpop — and I got lots of criticism when I did the “We Are All Mozart” project in 2007, composing 107 pieces (100 on commission) in a year (from bunches of solos and piano pieces through a 40-minute quintet to a full orchestral piece). I am curious as to what posters will respond now, eight years distant from my own project.

    My own experience was that I got sharper day by day and the compositions got stronger.

  2. John Borstlap

    The commecrial things are well-done… cudos! But it has nothing, really totally nothing, to do with art music which requires inner freedom, time, reflection, inner growth, and no reflections about what ‘the world’ will say. The problem with most contemporary music, especially when written by younger people, is the lack of some sort of scaffolding in terms of aesthetic and technical norms, as the old tradition offered. Creating your own tradition from bits you really do like, from a personal urge, may create such scaffolding, a supoorting structure which can project into a musical narrative. And paradoxically, if you absorb traditional elements according to your own individual taste, and synthesize them in isolation from ‘the world’, you can eventually find a positive welcome in that world, because these traditional bits form a bridge of understanding. That’s what I have tried to do, and it has proven to be possible to interest the ‘classical orchestras’ into the results. But this requires a lot of time, a lot of efforts, and individualism.

    Then: ‘Nothing is sacred and most things are functional’ is a very wrong notion. ‘Sacredness’ in the widest sense, is – for art music – very functional. It refers to inwardness, psychology, expression, narrative (to some extent), and individual authenticity, which are the fertile ground on which the tree will grow. Again, tradition offers possibilities here because of well-tried exercises in all these factors from whoich we can learn. Thoughts like: ‘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”?’ are contradictory to a fertile approach…..

  3. Brighton

    Dennis and John are both right – the discipline of working to order, on a deadline, is good. It often doesn’t matter whether you have 2 years or 2 hours to write a piece, the results can be similar. On the other hand, art is a grind and some pieces take forever because they are intensely personal and necessarily intricate. It’s unfair to generalize in either direction- we will each have seemingly instant pieces and those that still aren’t completely right after a year of editing. I tend to work fast, but I often revisit pieces after living with them for months or years and I like the improvements that are possible only after careful consideration.

  4. Trevor

    I appreciate the thoughts. I’m glad this topic has engaged some discussion.

    I had two points I wanted to make:
    1. My personal experience with learning how to be increasingly productive and how it has flowed into all aspects of my musical life.

    2. Regarding “nothing is sacred”, I mean to say that I don’t get too precious about my music . I think it’s important to move on to the next one. I probably could have been more clear on this topic in my post.

    While I care care deeply about every piece I write, I also hold it as a moment of my personal narrative. I’m always looking for what’s next. For example, maybe there was something in an older piece that I didn’t get a chance to explore that I will now have the opportunity with a new work. Or even better, maybe there was something about the previous piece that I didn’t like. It could have been over-orchestrated or unduly difficult. I’ll nail that in the next one. Or even the best, I’m no longer interested in that and I want to try something new.

    These are thrilling moments that happen in the spaces between each composition. And so you have to keep writing new things to continue the process.

    I know not everyone will love this reference! – But for me, what makes Kanye’s “Yeezus” so powerful was that it followed “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, which is a nearly perfect hip hop record. With “Yeezus”, he deconstructs all of that to the most reductive and brutal elements. He first needed “Dark Twisted Fantasy” to make “Yeezus”. Here’s his interview on the subject:

    MCQUEEN: Talk to me a little bit about Yeezus. The album before that one, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was a phenomenal success. Did that wear on your mind when you went in to make Yeezus?

    WEST: Yeah! So I just had to throw it all in the trash. I had to not follow any of the rules because there was no way to match up to the previous album. Dark Fantasy was the first time you heard that collection of sonic paintings in that way. So I had to completely destroy the landscape and start with a new story. Dark Fantasy was the fifth installment of a collection that included the four albums before it. It’s kind of the “Luke, I am your father” moment. Yeezus, though, was the beginning of me as a new kind of artist. Stepping forward with what I know about architecture, about classicism, about society, about texture, about synesthesia—the ability to see sound—and the way everything is everything and all these things combine, and then starting from scratch with Yeezus … That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to use the same formula of starting the album with a track like “Blood on the Leaves,” and having that Nina Simone sample up front that would bring everyone in, using postmodern creativity where you kind of lean on something that people are familiar with and comfortable with to get their attention. I actually think the most uncomfortable sound on Yeezus is the sound that the album starts with, which is the new version of what would have been called radio static. It’s the sonic version of what internet static would be—that’s how I would describe that opening. It’s Daft Punk sound. It was just like that moment of being in a restaurant and ripping the tablecloth out from under all the glasses. That’s what “On Sight” does sonically.

    MCQUEEN: So Yeezus was about throwing away what people want you to do—the so-called “success”—so you could move on to something else.

    WEST: It’s the only way that I can survive. The risk for me would be in not taking one—that’s the only thing that’s really risky for me. I live inside, and I’ve learned how to swim through backlash, or maintain through the current of a negative public opinion and create from that and come through it and spring forth to completely surprise everyone—to satisfy all believers and annihilate all doubters. And at this point, it’s just fun.


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