Kurtz: "Are my methods unsound?"
Willard: "I don't see any method at all, sir."
I quit for many years.
Composing music, that is.
But then, one day, a really simple thought occurred to me: What ever happened to that sketch called "Night in St. Cloud"? Why did I suddenly care about a piece I had abandoned years ago? Why did it bother me?
At that point, someone should have stopped me. Or slapped me. Hard. This should have been followed by a very gruff and deadly serious dressing down: "Look, buddy, do you remember what happened last time? Huh, huh? Is that what you want to become again?"
What I had "become" was a composer. Oh yeah, a fully fledged (in my mind at least), full-time writer of music. Sure, I have been throwing together "pieces" since I discovered the joys of the guitar and a Montgomery Ward tape recorder since I was a teenager, but to call yourself a composer is crossing a distinct line. (One of my colleagues snidely remarked about another: "He fancies himself a composer." Ouch.) And it is to embrace a certain aesthetic and a lifestyle. It became more than a title. It became a monster - an all-consuming madness.
At the height of my passion, I had every kind of mechanical pencil that Pentech made, various commercial and home-made manuscript paper, an abundance of erasers, drafting tools, a stopwatch, pencil sharpeners, ink and stamps (not sure what that was for) some of which was kept in a bag that my wife thoughtfully bought me for Christmas. I carried that lumpy, heavy bag everywhere I went.
I composed at every opportunity. For example, while my wife was shopping in Macy's, I would sit out in the car and arrange Bach for guitar ensemble or work on a dozen or so pieces I was juggling all at once. Or review works that were completed (Are they ever?) for an upcoming performance. Day and night, night and day, I wrote, listened and reflected on the music that seemed to pour out of me. Hours would pass without notice. The outside world was an intrusion. I was lost, like a first love, in the sound world I was creating. This was more akin to meditation and prayer than a mere fascination with the structures of music.
Even my colleagues were noticing. At rehearsal, one flutist friend took one look at me and said, "You've been composing, again, haven't you?" My appearance must have spoken of that faraway look and predisposition towards a real and delicate introversion during and after hours of solitude.
When you do something so obsessively, there is the law of diminishing returns. The voice of doubt grows stronger as fatigue sets in and so knowing when to stop is as valuable as the work itself. Plus, I was trying to prove something to myself. Or rather, composition was a way of disproving a few personal doubts. In any case, composing should be about, as George Crumb says, "pushing notes around." In other words, however soul-stirring the music may be to the writer, ultimately it has to be able to "stand on its own two feet (Hans Zimmer)." It must be able to be presented to a group of performers and ultimately an audience. They get the final word in my mind.
Somewhere along the line, I felt that it was stupid to be such a slave to what should be an enjoyable diversion. I backed out of music for a while. All of it: performing, practicing and especially writing. I had to be free and enjoy life, as a colleague says, as "a civilian."
Back to the present: have things reached overload yet? No, not really. Watching TV is not interrupted in my mind with the constant swirl of musical ideas as I control my composing rather than the other way around. One grace of being older is that a minuscule amount of wisdom is acquired (bidden or not). I confine my writing to the morning and small dabbles in the evening. And although my mind is constantly trying to figure out where the next passage is going, I do not let it overwhelm me.
To try to be objective here, whatever profundity or greatness is missing from my music, I think the constant influx of ideas and certainly the peace and rapture that I feel while writing is something enviable. Does it make up for other shortcomings? Probably not, but I plow forward
In the time I have taken to finish the not-yet-finished "Night in St Cloud," I have written and finished three other projects and started another. I have added a computer and plan to purchase notation software. And yes, the piles of sketches grow, but this feels much better and ten times more focused and healthy an activity.
At least I tell myself that.