"When I compose it's an inner discipline that controls me. No concerts, rehearsals, interviews! It's another way of living and I prefer it in a way. If you want to skip dinner and work all night, sleep all day, you just do it ... it's another person that emerges, more absorbed in an interior world. But it's hard to make the transition between the two lives [conducting and composing], and to clear everybody else's music out of your head to make room for your own.
-Leonard Bernstein (interview with Judith Karp, September, 1979)
The Bernstein pose above is typical. How many pictures have we seen of a composer, working at the piano, carefully notating his or her new creation, gesture by gesture? My own work a composer started that way, back in the “prehistoric” days of pencil and paper. I approached my work (still do) as a three-part trinity of musical creation. Begin by improvising at the piano; from there, expand to preliminary sketches on paper. Develop that new material, moving the pieces around as necessary until a working draft of the music begins to appear. Repeat the three-part process as often as necessary. And then the tedium begins, the slow and exhausting process of copying score and parts, since I could never afford my own copyist. Hours and hours of mind-numbing work, but I was young, which helped.
The description above presupposes that you are ready to be creative. For the young composer in particular, it is also a matter of pre-compositional preparation. Do you understand the medium that you are writing for? Have you investigated the capabilities of the various instruments? What do they do well? What must be avoided? What do they offer in the world of “extended technique” and where do these special timbres work into your plans? If there is a text: how thoroughly have you studied the source material that you are setting? What do you know about the author? Where does this text fit into this person’s output? What does the text mean and how is it constructed; what are the key words and images? What is its structure, and how will this item effect your ideas on form in your music? And, if your text is not in the pubic domain: do you have “permission” to use this text, or are you hoping that no one will notice that you don’t? Not a good plan for the future, young composers.
But let’s move away from all the options, the decisions and the possible complications. Step into that special world that Bernstein describes so succinctly. I agree with Lenny; composing is a special “interior” world. For myself, it is a therapeutic escape. I need this special time and I need it to occur on a regular basis. If I don’t compose anything new for an extended period of time, my sense of wellbeing is compromised. I find myself becoming less relaxed and more tense, It is harder to muster the creativity that also must be on hand for my teaching, conducting and other musical activities. My brain becomes dull; my senses register less. I am not a happy camper.
This special interior world demands my complete attention upon entering, as Bernstein suggests. You must to block all distractions from your mind. I work in an academic world, which must remain at bay when it is time to write. Forget the class prep, the assignments, the papers, the committees, etc. My new piece is perhaps not as large as the “universe” that Mahler describes with his symphonies, but it is a different place that needs to be respected. I have to labor, sometimes with great difficulty, in order to get things to work out, So please try not to disturb me, when I write as members of my immediate family can tell you!
While I Run this Race (2008; Revised 2015-16)
The inner world is a great place to be. Heart, soul and mind come together, especially on those good days. I am never as exited as when a new piece starts to unfold and I can start to make plans project ahead, etc. Everything feels so wonderful; greatness lies ahead! These initial good feelings do not last forever, sadly; sooner or later, real composing has to take place, and those difficult decisions and compromises begin to emerge. I try to avoid the dark times, when all my mind and body wish to do is to “finish the darn thing.” Perhaps a bit of disillusionment with the piece has set in; so much for grandeur…..This is the time to be patient, work through the dead ends carefully, edit, rewrite and even remove entire passages if need be. The process is not fun, but it is necessary work. Computer technology makes it very easy to start a new draft; when you come to that fork in the road in your piece, take it as Yogi Berra would sometimes say…..
When is the best time to compose? Decide for yourself. Although I am a “night person,” I am not the Romantic composer who toils through the night to create the world’s next work of art. This scenario is good for bad Hollywood movies, perhaps, but not for me. Nights are good for editing, though, or coming back to one particular passage with an idea that addresses a particular problem.
When to compose? My teacher told me to schedule times during the week to write, as you would for appointments. You can work at other times, of course, as the opportunities arise. As an academic, this approach helps. Give yourself plenty of time to work on a given piece, so that you can walk away on a day where good ideas are scare. Two to three hour stints work for me; marathon sessions rarely produce what I need.
Try to get at least something down on paper whenever you work, even if it is not very good. Come back and improve things later. I usually try to end a session with a passage that is going well. It might not be “perfect” yet, but some kind of success has been registered.
And, most important, when you can: get out of Dodge, and go someplace special to work. I have done this on only a few precious occasions, but each time, it has done wonders. I enjoy the facilities at retreats like the Virginia Center for the Arts, whose mission it is to supply studios, lodgings and meals for visual artists, writers and composers throughout the year. The opportunity to set your own schedule, work at all hours, and not worry about anything else is bliss. This reaches the Bernstein ideal in the best way I know. Such a life is totally unrealistic for the rest of the year, but for a limited amount of time, wonderful!
I long for the day of my retirement, that “permanent” sabbatical that will allow me to do as I please, or so the theory goes. I will be able to compose as I want, whenever I want, with fewer distractions! For the moment, I will continue to seek my comfort time with creativity as I am allowed, those wonderful hours when everything seems possible and the world is always beautiful………..
PS. You may not consider yourself to be a creative artist on the professional level, but you can always support the people who do, and also the artistic colonies that help them to do their work in the best of conditions. The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, in Amherst, Virginia, is one such place. For more information about their mission, please feel free to visit their website: http://www.vcca.com/main/.