The Score: Advice to Young Composers
By Annie Gosfield
Back in October I was interviewed by Cornelius Dufallo, a fine violinist who recently performed a piece of mine. He sent me a list of questions, the last being, “Any advice for young composers?”
The question took me by surprise — wasn’t I a young composer, too? When did I make the transition to not-so-young composer? Every day I have moments when I feel like a young composer: I struggle with starting projects, experiment with unfamiliar techniques, and deal with interpersonal challenges. There are so many times when I feel like I lack a manual in my day-to-day life. How do I find the time to compose and still take care of all of the boring administrative tasks? What’s the best approach to take with a temperamental musician? Can the violinist really play a phrase that fast, or will his fingers turn into a tangle of scorched flesh? The occasional impossible aesthetic decision can seem easy in comparison. Truth is, if I had the answers to all of the questions, my life would be a lot less interesting. Looking for the answers and keeping an open mind is what keeps it exciting.
When I first moved to New York, a friend and colleague proudly announced to me that he no longer played experimental music. He was a great improviser who coaxed wild sounds out of his instrument, but he was content with where his work had led him, so he stopped exploring. I found it both funny and disturbing — here was a guy who was willing to get on stage and work his way through a strange vocabulary of very original sounds. Why would he give up experimenting? It convinced me to keep turning over rocks to see what kind of musical wildlife I could uncover in the dirt, and to avoid getting comfortable with any single approach or style. Sometimes it means experimenting with a new sound, technique, or combination of instruments, or investigating a way to express myself while writing for a more traditionally trained group of musicians. I’ve managed to strike a balance between having enough confidence in my own music to develop my own sound, but enough curiosity and restlessness to continue to change it. If there’s a formula to writing music, I haven’t found it, and I hope I never do.
Why would I want to hover between being a greenhorn and seasoned old hand? So I can retain the excitement and the willingness to make mistakes that come with youthful enthusiasm, and temper it with the knowledge, skills, and confidence that come with experience. As the decades pass, there’s nothing I’d like more than to be a young composer trapped inside the body of a grand old lady. So I try to keep these points in mind:
Always consider yourself a young composer. Throughout your life as a composer there will always be more to learn, more to explore, and more to write.
Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Once you’ve recovered from the grand aesthetic statement you just made, make sure your music is actually playable. And, hopefully, readable. A sense of humor will help you get through difficult times, and could help deflect the fact that the pianist might have to grow a few extra fingers to play that epiphanal earth-shattering chord that you refuse to change. If you work with electronics, remain calm in the face of computer crashes. Better to distract the crowd with a joke then to show off your trembling hands when you fumble to re-boot your computer.
A few years ago I staged a site-specific performance of my factory-inspired piece “EWA7” to a packed house at the cavernous Brooklyn Anchorage. At the climax of the piece, my sampler died, and I suddenly felt like I was being sucked into a sonic vacuum. I cued my bandmates, Roger Kleier and Jim Pugliese, to keep going, regained my composure, and got my sampler up and running again. Good save — until the next climactic moment, when it crashed again.
It was nerve-wracking, annoying, and a little bit funny, but I managed to keep my cool, supported by two great improvisers who could turn on a dime. After the concert, an audience member told me his favorite dramatic moment was when the music built to a frenzy, and then the sampler suddenly dropped to nothing. I chalked it up to a happy accident and worked it into future performances of the piece.
Details count. I’ve put a lot of time into developing some very noisy pieces. Although your ultimate goal may be something that sounds fast and dirty, there is almost always room for improvement as you refine your sounds, your scores, or your techniques.
Be willing to put yourself and your music on the line. If you don’t believe in your music, nobody else will. If you’re trying something new, be prepared for those lonely times when you may be the only one who believes in your work. At least you’ll have yourself — buy yourself a drink and be good company.
Avoid well-worn paths. The world of “new music” is not the esoteric, marginalized place that it used to be. Now that there are more composers who have actually found some success and made some money, there is a clearer career path. Avoid that path — you already know where it leads. The composers you admire didn’t get where they are by imitating others. Inspiration and influence are a far cry from imitation, so listen, observe, and then dig deeper to find your own music.
Don’t fear rejection. Hats off to you if you annoy some of your audience — you may actually be trying something new. When I ask other musicians “How was your gig?” the answer I hear more and more frequently is “Everybody loved it”. When did that become socially acceptable? Is this the result of a culture in which every child gets a trophy? New music shouldn’t be a popularity contest — that’s why god gave us pop music (unless the devil did.). If everybody actually did love your concert, appreciate the accolades, but consider how your work did or didn’t challenge yourself and your audience. Maybe they actually did love it because it was something new, maybe your audience is made up of supportive friends, or maybe that open bar did the trick.
Don’t assume you know what’s accessible to the audience and what isn’t. I haven’t met an audience member yet who praised a concert for its watered down music and rehashed ideas. In spite of (and maybe in response to) the expanding reach of mainstream media, there is a growing audience of people looking for challenging, unfamiliar new music. It’s your job to challenge them.
If you chose to study composition, spend your time in school studying what you can’t learn in a club or a garage. If all you really want to do is play in a band, you’ll learn more playing in a club than you ever would in a classroom. Plus you’ll get to drink beer. If you want to learn skills geared towards notated music, or want to have access to say, a school orchestra, and a teacher that has mastered orchestration, that’s the time to rack up those tuition bills. If you’re interested in electronics, and having access to advanced technical facilities, consider how much you can learn using your own computer and a manual, and get a head start. You’ll probably come up with more original ideas if you begin by teaching yourself.
When I was studying music, I found all of the emphasis on putting together a proper score tedious. Ear training drove me crazy. When I started playing in bands and improvising, I was ready to kiss all of that goodbye. I wouldn’t have dreamed that the music I blasted through with my own band would eventually wind up on paper. Having the skills to notate my own music meant that my own personal noisy style could be translated to a whole world of musicians who wouldn’t be able to play it otherwise. By combining traditional notation with open sections and solos, I could clearly communicate a piece to musicians anywhere in the world without having to be there to lead them through a rehearsal.
Make sure you’re always doing some work that is yours and yours alone — not composed for the approval of teachers or colleagues. There’s a chasm between writing in school and writing in the real world. Regardless of what you’re doing in school, you should always write something that’s not subject to grades. You may learn a lot comparing what you write for yourself to write for others. Guidance can be helpful at times, but I have never found authority to inspire creativity. When I was studying composition at U.S.C., I would sneak into the Arnold Schoenberg Institute after hours to rehearse. It gave me access to a stage and a P.A. without having to run my music past my teachers, so I could experiment with my own band and work with other improvisers. It was a very conservative environment, so it was especially fun to sneak around, another great motivating factor that got me started as a composer/performer/improviser.
Never discount the power of the library. Scores and recordings hold knowledge that can lead you down paths you may not find elsewhere. Consider the score your road map, or blueprint, and see how others constructed music.
Remain curious and ask questions. Musicians are your best resource, and they love to show you what they can (and can’t) do. I always stay in close contact with the musicians for whom I’m writing, and I’m never afraid to ask questions. Ultimately we all learn from a new piece. A commission is a great excuse to get the process started — the performer will share the techniques that he or she has developed over the years, and get a better piece in the end. I’ve been fortunate to work closely on new commissions with Joan Jeanrenaud, Felix Fan, Lisa Moore, David Cossin, Blair McMillen, George Kentros, Marco Cappelli, and many others, all masters of their instruments. If you’re just starting out, keep an open mind about commissioning fees — just get the piece written.
Allow yourself to be led down the garden path. Your mistakes may teach you more than your neatly constructed pieces. I hear the complaint “I didn’t get it” too often. It’s music, you don’t always have to get it. It’s not like piloting a jet or performing brain surgery: if you experiment, nobody will die in a terrible accident. There doesn’t always have to be a narrative thread or a familiar reference in music, it’s one of the few disciplines in which you can lose yourself, and the sensory experience in itself can be something entirely new.
Make music, and make music happen. The more you write, play, improvise, listen to, and think about music, the better. If your grand opus isn’t being premiered by the New York Philharmonic, don’t despair. Set up a solo gig at a local venue and play your own music. Build a community of musicians and start your own ensemble, band or collective and learn from each other. Take advantage of a good-news-bad-news situation: the strict boundaries between musical genres are crumbling, but performance opportunities are decreasing. Be creative, anything can happen anywhere. Support live music and try to get to know artists that you admire. Before I moved to New York, I lived in Los Angeles, where I volunteered at organizations that booked new music and I helped bring in many improvisers and new music luminaries from New York. It was a great way to get to know people, and learn more about the music. Seeing my heroes asleep on my couch (or floor) destroyed any romantic notions I had about being an active musician in this scene. By the time I moved to New York, I was already friendly with many of the musicians I admired most.
I’ve toured the world, taught in universities, played in dives, factories, and concert halls, and recorded three CD’s under my own name. All of this experience has made me a better composer, but the really tough artistic challenges have kept it exciting.
I hope each generation brings in a new crop of composers that are ready to annoy the last generation. And I hope I’m there in decades to come, as I become a young composer trapped inside the body of a grand old lady, still ready to come out fighting.