A few weeks ago, some of my colleagues at Curry College invited me to address their classes on the topic of identity as a composer. I stood next to a photographer, a visual artist, and a dancer discussing a topic that frankly, I hadn’t spent enough time considering. I rambled through some of the themes that show up in a lot of my work, but I found myself grasping to define my compositional identity. I think this is largely because I’ve always approached composing as something I enjoy, not as something that defines me. Like most artists, I seek to share meaning, but at my core, I’m just having a good time!
That experience got me to thinking a bit more deeply about why I do what I do. In the process, I’ve reflected on various bits of advice, encouragement, and challenge that have crossed my path over the years, and I thought I’d share some of the collective wisdom that has shaped the identity I’m just starting to understand.
If you like music and something else, do something else.
—Kenneth A. Jacobs
Dr. Jacobs was my first and only “official” composition teacher, and I learned a lot of practical lessons from him. (“If it’s worth doing once, it’s worth doing more than once!” “Is that another sleazy ostinato?” I could go on for days…) But the quote above is one of the most important lessons. Music is hard. It will always be hard. As a career, it’s only fit for those who are willing to endure the challenge over the long haul. If you find something else fulfilling, chances are it will be easier. Do that. But if music—especially composition—is your passion, hang on and enjoy the ride. Which brings me to another of my mentors…
Never be afraid to do it the right way.
While she was talking about committing fully to the style of whichever piece of music was in front of the choir at that particular moment, the lesson extends to composition (and teaching and life) as well. Don’t be afraid to write what needs to be written, even if—especially if—no one else has done it that way before.
“Make ‘em laugh; make ‘em cry.”
Apt advice for programming concerts, but also for writing music. From this, I remember not to take myself so seriously all the time, and more importantly, to seek variety in the music I create. I’ve also established my own corollary: “Make ‘em think.” If I accomplish nothing else with any given piece of music, then I’ll consider my job well done.
People walk into concert halls as they walk into emergency rooms, in need of healing. They may bring a broken body to a hospital, but they often bring with them to the concert a mind that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again depends partly on how well musicians do their craft.
Karl reminds me to work hard at composing. Leave no note unchallenged. Though I can’t take myself too seriously, I must take my music seriously. This is one of many essential balancing acts for every artist.
Connect, George. Connect!
I have to finish the hat.
—Stephen Sondheim via 19th century George in Sunday in the Park with George
Connect, George. Connect!
Say ‘cheese,’ George, | And put them at their ease, George. | You’re up on the trapeze, George. | Machines don’t grow on trees, George. | Start putting it together…
—Stephen Sondheim via modern George in Sunday in the Park with George
Stop worrying if your vision | Is new. | Let others make that decision— | They usually do. |
You keep moving on.
—Stephen Sondheim via Dot in Sunday in the Park with George
Sunday in the Park with George has been an artistic touchstone since I participated in the UA Huntsville production in 2011. I played the second keyboard part of Move On from memory every night because I was crying and couldn’t see my score. I had just decided to leave Huntsville to start my doctoral studies at Kentucky, and almost no one knew but me.
Additionally, I identify with yet another balancing act: be relevant enough so people can “get” what you’re saying, and yet new and different enough to justify your methods. The world doesn’t need another Beethoven or Mozart; the world needs something new…but not TOO new. Richard Burchard summed up his approach to this conundrum (and I’m paraphrasing) by commenting on how much he loves both Renaissance polyphony and modern harmonies. He particularly enjoys (and is quite good at) combining the two.
I’d like to think that I’m the perfect blend of 19th-century George and modern George, but if I’m honest, I’m probably not quite either. I guess you could say that I’m still “putting it together.”
Write the music that only you can write.
This gem popped onto my radar only a few days ago, but it has stuck with me. It comes on the heels of struggling to justify the time and effort it takes to write something new. I mean, who am I to suggest that my voice should compete with Bach, Brahms, Tormis, Gershwin, Boulanger (Lili, of course), or Ravel? Even Ravel once declined Gershwin's request for composition lessons by asking, “Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?”
Yet, perhaps the problem is that we composers often don’t ask that question honestly. We expect the answer to be, “I can’t compete, so why should I even try?” When actually, the better answer might be, “We aren’t competing. They’re dead.” In their time, I’m sure they were asking similar questions. Even the great and seemingly über-confident Beethoven doubted his abilities at least once in his life.
Really, isn’t all of music—all of art—commentary on what has come before? In my heart of hearts, this is my identity: I am an observer. I observe music historical, including the greats mentioned above. I observe the world around me: behavior, need, alterity, pain, joy, love, hate... I observe the notes that end up on my metaphorical manuscript paper (now known as a computer screen). I observe what I hear: what I like, and what I don’t. In all of these observations, I have the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to practice living—really living—without the risk of dying. This is the essence of art.
If I hold to these principles, perhaps a version of that last statement will find its way onto my tombstone and into my obituary. Then, when I am laid in earth, I’ll have at least one thing in common with the “greats” I mentioned earlier, though it probably won’t be fame.* I think I’m coming to terms with the identity of "one who really lived". Now to make it happen.
BTW, join Triad: Boston's Choral Collective for our concerts on April 8 and 9 as we explore how composers use "Subversive Tonality" to react and comment on the common musical language passed down for generations. More details can be found here.
*Nobody in choral music—not even Eric Whitacre—is truly “famous”. Don’t believe me? Ask a random stranger who’s never sung in a choir who Eric Whitacre is. Chances are, a good number of choral singers won’t know his name either, and I doubt there’s another living composer of choral music who’s better known than he is. We'd best come to terms with doing what we love for the love of what we do. Fame is a terrible master.