Thursday, September 07, 2006


Although the end-product of composing is usually* a public good** the act of composition itself is generally a private affair. Morton Feldman described his composing as a performance, and it's hard to to get around the performative aspects of many composers at work -- the speed, the preparations, the corrections, the tension between the calculated or planned and the spontaneous. But most of us choose to do this performance alone. Some of us like to share the work a bit along the way, testing it out with foreign, but trusted ears. A few of my teachers have shared their work in progress with me, and it was a real honor to have seen working scores by Cage and Feldman (in the case of Feldman, the composer's pride over the draft for Words and Music was evident in the enthusiasm with which he shared the sketches; the man was almost giddy). But only a very few of us will open the composing performance up entirely; the only examples I can think of are a handful of young composers scribbling away at cafeteria tables in Darmstadt, Wolfgang Rihm doing his scribbling during a concert, and David Cope, who, during a stint as an administrator, once lined the walls of a conference room adjacent to his office with a score in progress, and in-between bureaucratic wranglings, found welcome relief in tending to his piece.

Since starting Renewable Music, I have received some surprisingly strong feedback*** from colleagues on the topic of blogging. While most have been supportive of this project, some composers have been taken a bit back by the form. For some of them, a blogging style invites or even demands a breach of composerly privacy, through both talking shop too openly and through what might be called a "confessional" tone, including too much of one's private life. Although I have generally tried to exclude purely personal issues, and have tried to discuss my own work in progress in the most general terms, my fondness for the anecdotal has probably got the better of me and brought in details from the private sphere too often for the comfort of some. On the other hand, there are some excellent blogs by composers out there that make a good case for not drawing a sharp line between life and work, and if I had the needed lightness in my prose to bring it off, I could be persuaded otherwise. But that's not the case: I fight with every word, and usually lose, and so the public/private balance around here will probably stay about the same.

* There is, in fact, a profoundly important sub-genre of music that is made specifically for private use. Tom Johnson probably named the genre with his collection of Private Pieces (1976), but there are other important precendents to be found, both when composers have chosen to take the positive musical advantages of a private performance situation into account, and when composers have been forced by musical or other reasons to take refuge in a private environment.
** Legally, the public (the state, the crown...) even owns the stuff, granting us only temporary custody. Don't take this as support for the ongoing mickeymouse-made mess of laws designed to extend that custody for ever longer periods of time. The conflict between making the best of the intellectual property environment as it is and as it ought to be is a major practical and ethical issue for composers. I have no idea how it should be resolved.
*** I receive three or four offline email comments for every comment posted online. Another privacy issue?


Trevor Murphy said...

I would say there's a divide between artists who see the process as the art -- guys like, say, Warhol and Cage -- and the ones who think the process is of no interest, only the outcome. I think of the passage in Woolf's 'Orlando' where the protagonist writes a novel- the character sits down to a desk in front of a window and a bird hops across the lawn outside. I am very sympathetic to that approach. Making a finished piece of art is a grinding, tedious, internal process that isn't especially interesting to watch- the composer sits in a chair and puts notes in a row, and then erases some, and then goes away and thinks for a while and changes what he wrote before or maybe writes a little more.

A composer's desire for privacy, then, I consider to be (to use high-falutin' phraseology) Appolonian- he wants his piece to be perceived as something pure and isolate and inevitable, not all mixed-up with what books he's been reading, the state of his marraige, his revisions and human self-doubts during the composition process.

That's just a hunch, though.

Civic Center said...

I've lost a couple of paying clients and a few acquaintances in the 18 months since starting up my photoblog, but I figure that just goes with the territory when you have a strong voice. Which you do have.

God has given me many gifts, but being able to compose music or sing on pitch are not among them, so reading about the process from somebody who can is fascinating. And your private/public mix feels just about right.