You would think after all this time that I knew how to write a piece of music, that I would simply sit down with pencil and paper, screen and mouse, and scratch or tap out something new, yet the reality is that after all this time I still feel that every piece is a challenge and that I am continually rediscovering composition from scratch. This morning, after a fruitful hour that produced more material than the whole of the previous month, I was reminded of several basic facts, that the early morning is hugely productive, that throwing down any ideas at all is better than throwing down none, and that often the best place to begin a piece is anywhere but the start.
In many ways, despite the difficulties, I am glad that every piece presents a different challenge, because right from the start of my compositional career I wanted to tackle something different in every piece, to have a voice that developed and changed. I always suspected that writers (not just of music) who settled into a style and simply churned it all out were somehow sitting back contentedly and watching the money come in, possibly a satisfying experience financially but redundant artistically.
When I read again how much Sibelius struggled with that seventh symphony, staying up through the nights with a bottle of whisky to steady both his nerves and his hands, I somehow feel that I am not alone, that if even that great Titan of the north fought and obsessed over every note then a rank amateur by comparison is allowed his doubts. As for his fight with the eighth symphony, the one that eventually ended up on the fire in his drawing room, that is another struggle entirely.
At school for German A-level one of our set texts was Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann, the story of an artist’s struggle to come to terms with his identity. From the moment I read it, Kröger, the offspring of a respectable middle-class father and a fiery mother from the south (how that sounds familiar!) was my thoughts put into words, and whenever I return to that book I am surprised at just how accurately Mann has summed up what I go through on a daily basis.
It is impossible, says Mann, to take a leaf from the tree of art without paying for it with your life. In other words it is all or nothing, and having that moment this morning, that quiet hour when the notes just fell out of the ends of my fingers onto the page, was composition at its best, even if at the back of my mind is the heavy knowledge that, like Kröger, often I write not because I want to write but because I cannot not write.