Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Working, Habitually

A small item here about the working habits of philosophers. Composers can be just as eccentric and/or obsessive in their routine meetings with the muse. A rather senior composer of my acquaintance, long retired from teaching, still keeps regular hours in his college office, a courtesy of his emeritus status, taking breaks each hour only to nurse a bit on a cigar (he gave up smoking the things, on Doctor's orders, decades ago). Some composers have to get dressed up for the job — never without the right hat or a properly-tied bow tie —, while others dress down — which might mean a Hefner-esque pyjamas and bathrobe or even less, like a friend with a great glassed-in studio in a woody part of New England, who begins every working session with an hour of improvisation at his white Baldwin grand, without a stick of clothing on his ample body. (The fact that the piano is a white Baldwin seems, somehow, important. Also, I am tempted to make a comment along the lines of ample-bodied composers should NOT compose while naked in glass houses, but one should hope that rule to be self-evident). I belong to the dress-down side, black t-shirted and stocking-footed, in part to make sure I stay put by not looking suitable to travel, but mostly because it's comfortable and I'm just another American male who learned to dress at twelve and never learned any better. I can't have food or drink near my desk, or I'd consume it idly and add to my own ampleness, not to mention a dread of crumbs and spills. At Darmstadt, I once witnessed a row of four young women composing at a dining hall bench and table as if they were taking an entrance exam; it reminded me of Phantom of Liberty. Some composers work with the TV on. Others sit, manuscripts — or now, laptops — in their laps, composing during concerts. Some composers like to work in cafes and bars, but it's probably an even bet that when you start composing in bars, you're on the way out of a composing career. Like Morton Feldman, I've obsessed long about my chair; the current one, rough, wooden, and straight-backed from India has the virtue of being stable and forces me to sit upright, but a lazier style of sitting equipment may well be in my future, a small reward to my aging person. Also, like Feldman, getting the right pen is a serious issue. I cannot use pencils. Only ink. And only black ink, although it damages fountain pens. I used to use RapidographsTM for lines and an off-the-rack calligraphy pen for the rest of the notation, but now I use the computer to notate final scores and parts, while sketching on countless little pieces of paper, and only with black-inked Uni-BallTM micros, which I buy by the dozen and have everywhere accessible. Some composers need an absolutely quiet environment, others need the company of noises. Often, I compose with the radio on (talk, not music). Children are often underfoot, and my studio is full of distracting clutter (at the moment: a gamelan, Greek shadow puppets, an orange NehiTM bottle, two clandestine photos of Duchamp's Etant donnés, a number of kids' drawings and the watchful eye of St. Martin de Porres). I really ought to work everyday to regular hours or to a set minimum of music finished (in bars or seconds), but I just can't. For that degree of regularity, my friends, would be obsessive.

5 comments:

Paul H. Muller said...

Wagner apparently felt he did his best work surrounded by opulance. I think I read somewhere that Bach's living quarters in Leipzig amounted to 850 sq ft - and was full of children.

I usually compose in the morning hours, when I have the most concentration and energy. Got to have quiet and privacy - no TV or other audio distractions. I work strictly on the PC, so pens, ink paper, etc are not an issue.

I think most people would be surprised by the amount of time it takes getting the score ready for performance. Creating the parts, cross checking them, transposing, etc. Even on the computer it is a major effort and involves a long session in front of a Kinko's copy machine. Lately I have been writing for just two or three voices so I just give everyone a copy of the entire score.

fredösphere said...

Uni-Ball: yessssss!

MPR said...

I prefer the pencil, myself. A rather specific pencil, at that. (I change my mind a lot).

I usually sketch larger works on drafting paper, around 11"x17" in size. Then 'transpose' my ideas to notation. Sometimes to manuscript paper, sometimes straight to the computer. (Finale as of late).

I agree with Paul, morning hours are best. Assuming I'm up...

kraig grady said...

Another pencil person here. But i go for the learners pencil. Yes those big fat ones that one might have seen when one was 5. i like them cause you don't have to sharpen them very often and you can even put it in your pocket and the lead desn't break. Als their size makes them easy to find. Erv Wilson turned me on to pencils after he showed me how out of doors his labels written in pencil would last years. those in ink fade.

Troy said...

They say Ben Franklin would carry a conversation while instantaneously composing articles for newspapers on the printing press - upside-down and backwards! Varying the focus of attention and working in peripheral has been a new experiment for me...

I had to take a job arranging popular music to pay the bills, but it turned out to be a fantastic interval of distraction between long periods of concentrating on my recent composition. Alternating between the creativity required for both types of projects kept each one fresh - and I found that many of my best ideas would bubble up for one project while I was working on the other. The method worked this time, I just hope it can be repeated in the future.