I am in the middle of reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, a fascinating discussion of various musical phenomena and how they might be caused by the functioning (or malfunctioning) of the brain, and I have found some of the information in there to be deeply comforting, even to the extent of putting to rest some long-held worries that I have had about composition. If only I had known these things a while ago then I think that I would have approached things with a lighter step all these years.
Firstly, as I have long suspected and often expressed, the creative artist does not switch off, so it is not as if the composer lays down their pen and then starts again the following day. The music is always there in the background, like the Mahler in the middle of Berio’s Sinfonia, twisting, turning, recasting, playing over and over like some kind of polishing machine, losing half a beat here, changing a note there.
Secondly, as reported by one of Sacks’s patients, composing is hard work, or, to be more precise, composing “particularly complex and intricate” works is a struggle. The relief I felt upon reading this after all that “Mozart merely transcribed it from his head” stuff (which is not really true anyway) was tangible, and, in any case, maybe the transcribing from the head is a result of that never switching off thing.
Whatever the deeper truth of the matter (and I am only a third of the way through the book) it has certainly made me feel better about my writing at a time when the foundations of it all have felt distinctly wobbly. The fact that I hear my current piece all the time in my head is something I can deal with, but the notion that possibly I find it difficult because I am trying to write music to a high standard is really rather soothing.
After all, I could just churn it all out to a template as some composers do, put the raw materials into the mixer and spew out another contribution to the Radox bath school of composition, or I could sit down with new materials each time and try to work out exactly how they fit together and what the ultimate version of them should be. It is slower, trickier and definitely more difficult, but in the end it is the way that I write, always seeking to produce what my colleague memorably referred to as ‘music of honesty and integrity’.