Composition as an instrument: ‘Relaxation’ as practice

Today Jay C. Batzner posted an excellent article on his blog entitled Composition as an instrument. In it he looks at how composition often takes a back seat to instrumental practice and how ‘composition’ should really be viewed as an instrument, with the same practice requirements as playing the flute or viola da gamba.

I think he’s entirely right on this matter, but I think that approaching composition as an instrument raises a particular issue to do with the perception of composition work by outsiders.

This problem is that much of what composers consider to be ‘composition’, to the rest of the world looks suspiciously like ‘lazing about’.

Listening, reading and thinking while staring into space are just as much a part of creating a new piece of music as the actual sitting at the piano or computer, putting dots on pieces of paper. It can be incredibly hard to justify these parts of composition to other members of the household who are grumbling because they think you should be doing the vacuuming.

It can also be incredibly hard to justify them to yourself. They’re enjoyable things, generally considered ‘leisure activities’ and much of the work going on is happening behind the scenes, so to speak, and almost on automatic pilot (because composers are almost always analysing the music they hear and searching for new and interesting sounds), so it also feels like a leisure activity, even when in actual fact it’s proper work.

I think this is one of the reasons I bake. When I’m baking, my brain is free to roam about while my hands follow the instructions in the book. I can listen to music when I bake and my mind can be mostly on the listening and analysing without fear of messing anything up in any major way, or any disruptive noises interfering (I can’t effectively listen to music while cooking sausages, for example, because the sizzle gets in the way). And of course I’m baking, so I neither look nor feel idle, so there’s no guilt factor. Plus anyone else in house gets muffins or whatever at the end of it which helps them get over their problem with the vacuuming.

Of course, what this largely comes down to is other people’s perceptions of what we’re doing. Looking at performance and composition in the way Batzner does, and thinking about how those activities are perceived, a composer sitting in a comfy chair, staring into space while listening to a CD and thinking hard about this instrument doubling or that turn of harmony and how this information can be incorporated into that tricky section that won’t come right in the current piece is is not perceptually equivalent to a violinist picking up her instrument and ploughing through a bunch of scales, regardless of how much or little thought she’s putting into that activity. When there’s no visible action, it’s hard for others to tell that work is even happening, far less give it its true value.

I know that I personally have a problem with this, which is why I have to give myself regular pep talks about doing more listening, more score-reading, more book reading. It’s why most of my music-book reading happens on the train, and most of my listening happens in the kitchen. It’s partly why I started going for walks in the morning – to get some thinking and listening time (and to count squirrels, of course, which I just find enjoyable. Hey, I’m Australian – we don’t have anything that cute that ventures into the city!) and it’s why, now that I’m working freelance, I don’t emerge from my burrow till quite late – I’m awake and just taking the opportunity for a good quiet think about what I’m working on, how I’m going to tackle it, and what I might do next.

What goes into your practice time? Tell us in the comments!

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