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!

A career in composition: The composer as chimera

Lately I’ve been reading Erin Kissane’s interesting book on content strategy as part of my continual quest to understand how to create more effective websites, both for my own web endeavours and those of my clients. Kissane likens content strategy as a field to a chimera in that its origins come from so many areas to create something new (albeit without actual lions, goats or snakes).

Reading this, I was reminded of how much my own practice and career as a composer – and that of pretty much all my colleagues – resembles that chimera. I’m the first to admit that I’m a freakish mishmash of interests, skills and goals.

One of my favourite-ever movie quotes comes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly asks Paul what he does:

Paul: I’m a writer, I guess
Holly: You guess? Don’t you know?
Paul: OK. Positive statement. Ringing affirmative. I’m a writer.

But I suspect for a lot of us, while the artistic focus is ever-present, we spend so much time doing other things that the “I guess” is almost obligatory. I know it is for me. When the Tate videoed me for their Creative Spaces blogging project, I had to email the director afterwards in a panic and ask him to edit me – I realised that every single time I’d said “I’m a composer” I’d immediately followed it with the words “and web developer”. I’d got so much into the “I guess” mentality that I had terrible trouble producing the unqualified ringing affirmative: “I’m a composer”.

What do I mean when I say that I’m a chimera? Well, there’s the usual assortment of random influences that go into my compositions: the visual art influences, love of poetry, historical obsession with minimalism and ongoing obsession with Erik Satie. There’s the adoration of Stravinsky and a newly acquired tentative fascination with modernism. There’s the limitations brought about by my problematic relationship with traditional harmony and deeply inadequate aural skills. And so on. But what I’m really talking about is the vast number of additional roles a composer takes on just to make their work and get it out there. Here are a few of mine:

  • music copyist
  • designer
  • publisher
  • web developer
  • writer
  • promoter
  • marketing person
  • statistician
  • performer
  • recording engineer

Many of these are common to most composers these days, I suspect – to a greater or lesser extent, we’re all involved in promoting and sometimes publishing our own music, in running websites to get ourselves found and tell people what we’re doing. If all you’re doing is writing music, then chances are you have an audience of your nuclear family and dog.

In my own case, I’m actually a professional in a few of these fields, for better or worse – I hold a design degree, I’m a former copy editor and proof-reader, I’m an accredited music copyist with the Music Arrangers Guild of Australia and I’ve been designing and developing websites for creative types and corporateland ever since leaving uni in 1996.

Don’t get me wrong. I love doing most of this stuff. I really enjoy tinkering with my website and making the experience better. I like writing blog posts and making my writing as effective as I can. I gain a lot of pleasure from laying out a score well so that it can (hopefully) sit comfortably alongside scores from ‘proper’ publishing houses. But there’s no doubt in my mind at all that if I didn’t have to do all this stuff, there’d be a good deal more time for writing notes.

Portfolio careers are normal now, I would say, for most composers. If you’re serious about your composition, then they have to be because at the very least you have two jobs, and many of us will put any strings to our bows that will enable us to keep writing.

So what’s my point here? I think the point is probably one mostly for composers (or artists of any sort) who are just starting their career. If you love your art, you need to be prepared to work at a lot more than just that art, but you also need to stand up and be counted as an artist and not let yourself be taken over by the other stuff.

Positive statement. Ringing affirmative. I’m a composer.