Thursday, October 21, 2010
Tools of unknown power
Here's an item by Daniel Silliman about writers and their preferred working tools. Some like pencils, others pens; some like 3x5 cards, others notebooks, still others quad-ruled paper; some still like typewriters (whether acoustic or electric), others embrace whatever technology is latest. Composers are particular about their implements as well. I've written here about favorite pens (in the past a handful of Rapidographs and a calligraphy pen, now exclusively (and exclusively for sketching) a uni-ball micro.) Some composers insist on pencil and eraser (Schoenberg used to insist on the importance of the eraser end of a pencil), some field armies of colored pencils (Elliot Carter, is such a General; I happen to follow Cage and write only in ink.) "Onion skin" ozalid prints were once the masonic handshake of a certain class of composers; I've always been a xerographic composer, but do insist on off-white, creme, or pale lime paper, heavy stock. There are composition teachers who insist on archaic paper sizes and only portrait orientation as a "professional" standard; I call BS and will wager my "professional" status on A-sized paper in any damn orientation I want. Back when, some composers did their own engraving, hammering and scratching plates of metal while others stockpiled sets of stencils and rub-on letters, numbers, and signs. Now the passionate concern is for notation/engraving programs, and not just the market-leading Sins and Fibs. (At last count, i had 12 notation programs on my desktop computers and have used each of them at least once for a feature not possible — or not readily possible — in another.) And let's not get started on the question of the right table, desk, chair (see Morton Feldman on chairs), lighting, etc., or whether one should compose sitting, standing, or as horizontally as possible. (Let alone accounting for the right amp and loudspeakers, right keyboard, right coffee machine or ersatz-Mini Bar, exercise bike or rowing machine, and don't ask me about the gamelan or the terrier which usually co-inhabit my studio.) Daniel Silliman's article concludes that these tools are fetishes, and thinking about them is "another way not to think about writing." And while there's a great deal of truth to that characterization, it's avoiding the fact that we fuss and worry about these things because the act of writing or composing inevitably has a component that is mysterious or even magical: we don't know exactly what it is that allows us to get our work done when all of the forces of the universe and our own natural inertia conspire to keep us from going forward. As productive as one may be, we are always on the edge of the dreaded block, and so we cling on to all elements just in case the absence of even the apparently least significant will affect the magic.