Friday, March 23, 2007


Half the job is finding the right tools. In the kitchen, for example, after 17 years together, we finally have a respectable set of knives, with both the specialty items (filet, tomato, cleaver, and that little knife that curves the wrong way) and the general-purpose (my Wüsthof Classic 8" cook's knife is one of the finest instruments ever made, the Börsendorfer of knives). On my workbench, however, I believe that the search for a good set of clamps is a project for a lifetime.

All the composers I know have been on never-ending searches for the right tools: the right chair, the right desk, a good lamp, the right pen. For a long time, my composing throne of choice was one of a pair of rough palisander straight back chairs from India, but recently and in light of, as Slonimsky put it so well, regressive infantilloquy, I've switched to a fairly ordinary desk chair, treating myself to swivels in any which way, ample padding, arm rests, and those wheels, those wheels.

As far as writing instruments are concerned, I'll admit to a certain amount of infidelity, if not promiscuity. I'm always on the watch for a better pen. I don't use pencils and only use permanent black ink. Before computerized engraving, a pairs of rapidographs and an off-the-shelf calligraphy pen were essential, the rapidographs for lines of different widths and the calligraphy pen for everything else. (I prefer cartridge pens, but some of my colleagues are still dippers or syphoners. For sketching and most other writing, after my teenage flings with the felt-and fine-tipped world, and a collegiate romance with fibre-tips and nylon ball rolling writers, I've had a fairy long partnership with the uni-ball micro, a pen that's gone through a number of manufacturers or distributors, and is now locally allied with Faber-Castell. They do wear out faster than one would like, being surprisingly sensitive to pressure on the ball tip, but I always buy a dozen uni-ball micros at a time, so that a fresh one is always handy. (I've written before about the very useful Noligraph staff writer, another tool no composer should leave home without).

One last note to the loved ones and acquaintances of composers: if you're looking for the perfect gift for a composer, you can forget the tie, but we do actually look favorably on the right writing instruments.


Unknown said...

Didn't Feldman say that with the right chair he'd be another Mozart?

Daniel Wolf said...

Steve --

You're right, of course. This post is actually outright theft from Feldman on my part, although I should have added that all the talk about tools is just talk about trying to get a slight edge on things. If we didn't have computers, or cartridge pens, or electric lights for our late night composing sessions, we'd make do with the available technology, be it cuneiform incisions in wet mud or chiseling into marble cliffs. A friend used to joke about Lou Harrison that he was systematically going back a step with every advance in technology, and added that if he could have, he would have even made paper himself. Well, in fact, late in life Lou developed a passion for non-tree papers and was talking about making it himself out in his new place in sunny Joshua Tree.

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for mentioning the Noligraph staff writer. Years ago I had a roller staff writer that worked with an ink pad. It was frustrating to use because it would often smear midway through a staff. I have been looking for another one, but now that I know about (and have a name for) the Noligraph, my life will be complete.

Anonymous said...

Many years ago I had read about how Stravinsky used a roller staff writer that he had made for him by a rubber stamp maker. It seemed quite clever. The article even hada photo of the thing. And for years I searched but could never find one. So I began to think that maybe I imagined the whole thing.

In any case, the Noligraph sounds like the way to go.
Here's the URL: