Too many ideas, too little time! The numerical inequality between these two has got me thinking recently about what we owe to our ideas:
What is our duty to inspiration? How do our values, both learned and inherent, affect our hierarchical treatment of ideas? What makes a “good” concept in an arbitrary system? Does calling “the spark” by a romanticized name establish anti-productive tropes? How much is allowing mutations to an idea via time and effort a form of concession? Is fermentation always a benefit? Or does it ever sour an idea? Method vs inspiration? Technique vs instinct?
So many nebulous dichotomies!!
I think the mistakes most young composers make regarding the proportioning and distribution of material stem from a primal fear of not being able to recreate inspiration in the future. Perhaps it is not so much this as simply a limited concept of the future itself. Indeed, the hardest thing about the editing room (for anyone, really, but especially for inexperienced artists) is confronting all the strips of film on the floor, so to speak. Young composers forget that those scraps can be used still, can be preserved or re-calibrated, can even be turned upside down and inside out. Somehow, we think they’ve been defiled if they’re not included in nascent exactitude immediately in our latest project.
I’ve dealt with this illogical instinct in a number of ways, and perhaps am just now coming to grips with it. My last orchestra piece sort of embraced the anxiety of shortsightedness, to a certain extent, and perhaps its oversaturation with conflicting ideas and unreconciled material was its most convincing element, in a way. “There is no form” became itself a form, each idea generated organically by the last. More recently, I’ve really been trying to narrow in on the lowest common denominator between each gesture in a piece, and align that molecular function with the idea I feel the piece is expressing overall. Essentially, I try to figure out what each piece is “about” while writing it, and trim all excess material that blurs this gestalt past the point of subtlety into obscurity. This is harder than it sounds! Sometimes, not even I can figure out what the fundamental message of my own piece is, from which all other included material derives. It’s almost like working backwards from the frontal lobe into the deep recesses of one’s lizard brain, in a way. It is really this struggle to comprehend the complexity of the intellectual concept one feels suits a work that is the true process of composing. Everything else one must learn (technique, notation, presentation, etc.) is important but ultimately extraneous.
I believe that the surface material of music is not so much important to its character or validity as its gestalt, as I described above. Music I dislike is music that frustrates this sensibility by putting too much of its message (and let’s be honest, every piece is a messenger for something, even if that mitochondrial DNA is purely, abstractly sonic in intention) in its surface. As a teacher once told me, 1:1 is the most boring ratio.
(So here we are, back to proportions again.)
Perhaps this “go big or go home” approach to material is minimalistic? It certainly values rhetorical clarity, though this doesn’t necessarily correspond to simplicity in my mind. I think we commonly conflate mastery of idiom with true creative genius. Not so! The former is a stepping stone to the latter, but is cruder in nature, since it can be taught relatively easily. The latter includes the former but is an inherent ability or a unique state of mind which one inculcates, often in opposition to the norm.
Speaking of norms… it’s application/award season and I’ve been thinking a lot about how we judge each other through our work. I’ve come to understand that commercially successful (but not necessarily meaningful) music puts all its effort and force into its surface, the most functional location for easily recognizable brilliance (in our current definition, mastery of a tradition). I certainly don’t eschew this entirely- I am, after all a musician with interdisciplinary interests, not a performance artist. And it’s true, conventions do exist for a reason, through a kind of aesthetic natural selection; who’s doing the selecting, however, has been shifting over the last century to such a degree that I believe it is not only a good idea for a composer to reconsider the place of convention in his/her music, but also a necessity. A recontextualization of convention on a case-by-case (or in music, a moment-by-moment, gesture-by-gesture, note-by-note) basis is called for in a number of fields. For example, I’m quite frustrated right now with orchestra pieces that sound like orchestra pieces, string quartets that operate like string quartets, wind quintets that act like… whatever the hell a wind quintet is (?). Opera is perhaps the only thing that may never be stagnant, perhaps because no one really knows what opera is to begin with (haha).
And yes, perhaps I have the luxury of boredom with conventionality, but it is also possible that we owe our ideas more than the air-filtered lip service which is so common today in classical music; that true meaning in this benevolently indifferent universe is a rare butterfly not sought to be pinned and displayed in a placard but preserved and celebrated in a sacred space. Perhaps our own self-censorship is killing our creativity. Perhaps big ideas don’t need capital letters and perhaps they do- but what they need most is honesty and genuineness. Ideas don’t have an agenda, nor do they have a lifespan; however, they do have a context, and those left uncontributed to that context may lose their potency, their ability to communicate meaning and engender dialogue.
But I digress.
On the more practical side, I’ve personally started taking better care of my ideas. Until present, I’ve kept the scribbled vestiges of momentary inspiration in nooks and crannies, cracks and corners. Scattered in various notebooks and digital files, they’ve become a cumbersome assemblage that inhibits my (already latent) organizational skill. So, I’ve started compiling all my errant musings into a single document. I’ve found the immediacy of this archive to be incredibly helpful in making connections between ideas which have been tugging at the back of my brain but somehow not making their way to the foreground.
This file, however, should come with a warning label: “READ AT YOUR OWN RISK OF OVERWHELMING INSPIRATION!” I’ve now got 8 pieces in the works (never gonna happen, but a girl can dream), in addition to concerts being prepared (and overly long blog posts being written). Fun times.