I had my ‘Eureka’ moment in the shower yesterday afternoon. Don’t ask what I was doing there at that time, but may it suffice to know that it was the moment that various strands of thought came together and I realised not only what I should be writing next, but also how it should begin.
I spent much of yesterday afternoon reading up about various aspects of composition, some of them very technical, in search of ideas and inspiration. The interweb is full of ideas from far greater intellects than mine, and there are many quite advanced treatises out there on how to go about writing modern music. While some of these techniques may generate processes which in turn generate pieces, most do not take the audience into account, rendering the music an experiment in a laboratory, a kind of construction in a bell jar nobody is allowed to get close to. Many is the new piece I have heard in the concert hall which ‘explores’ this or that, but I would prefer more works which ‘say’ something. I’m sorry to keep going back to Witold Lutoslawski, but his 4th Symphony is, for me, a shining example of what modern music can and should be, but there is a real fear that if you are not right at the cutting-edge, then somehow you are not relevant. Well, if Witold managed to become one of the greatest composers of the century without using microtones or advanced playing techniques for empty effect, there is surely room left for manoeuvre. That is not to say you cannot be advanced if you want to, but there is little value in novelty for novelty’s sake, and nothing dates as badly as fashion, Bernstein’s Mass, for example.
I realise that some eminent composers of the twentieth century, especially those at the forefront of the post-WW2 avant-garde, thought it anathema that composer should dare to consider an audience’s reaction when putting together a piece of music, but I am glad to say that this view appears to have softened somewhat. Certainly, one should not write down to an audience, but to ignore them entirely surely renders music – which is about communication – redundant.
After a brief flurry of enthusiasm for magic circles, generative processes and the like I went back to considering what I would like to write, at which point the beginning of a new piece came to me. I am coming to embrace the notion that the musical idea should generate the process rather than the other way around – in other words, if what you write first happens to be in the Lydian mode, then you should probably consider writing a modal piece. This contrasts with sitting down and saying ‘I am going to write a piece in the Lydian mode’ and then twiddling your thumbs while you try to put something worthwhile together.
Too rigid a definition of what your piece should be can prevent you from getting it started in the first place, so, while it is worth having some guidelines, one needs to be flexible all the way through the creative process. It is a delicate balancing act.
Should no commissions arrive in the meantime, my next five or six months are already mapped out, and will be spent writing various large-scale instrumental pieces for compositions. My instrumental writing is still less secure that my vocal and choral output, so I do need to knuckle down and tackle the various problems it throws in my direction. A good and long-standing friend wrote me an email yesterday with various suggestions about how to crack on with something new, including the idea that the time between commissions could simply be enjoyed. I rather like that idea, but I do not think that I am yet good enough technically to be able to sit on my hands between paid work. I would probably be a calmer person, but I enjoy the technical challenges of the pieces I am writing. I enjoy cryptic crosswords on the few occasions I get round to doing them, likewise puzzles and board games, proper ones, and writing music is an extension of those mental gymnastics, but writ large across my life.
More work arrived yesterday, including a concert I inherited from an organist who had rather priced himself out of the market. The concert includes a piece difficult to play, undoubtedly, but to ask for more than double the going rate is a bit rich, in all senses of the word. Maybe I should charge more, but I got the gig, and they will think me value for money, I would hope, and rebook me for future concerts. I used to work in retail and understood that, even if a customer is there for the cheapest thing in the shop, good service at a first impression counts for much more than an immediate profit. Call it investment if you will.
I was talking about composers on Tuesday with a colleague, and she remarked that a friend of theirs had said ‘never again’ about commissioning new work after a hellish experience with some composer or other. Turn up, do your job well, produce something decent on deadline and on budget and you are already better than 99% of the competition. Why seek drama in your life? If you really can’t live without it, there’s always TV.