Composing is hard.
I don't claim to be the most skilled composer working today, not in anyway. In fact, each time that I sit down to write I am reminded that being a composer is humbling, frustrating, and challenging all within a single stroke of the pencil. Even when I imagine a musical idea that is inventive and promising, I find myself subject to doubt. How does one know if an idea is ever really GOOD? I'm not sure they do. Perhaps that is why the creative process is ever unfolding. Art never really feels finished. Even when a work is published or premiered, the artistic process continues in the ears and imaginations of the audience and interpreters. I am always thinking and rethinking the music that I write.
As I sit down to compose this piece for Joseph Ohrt and the Central Bucks West Concert Choir, I am pushing myself to do new things that are foreign to my compositional practice. As with any endeavor, with something new comes a sense of fear and self-doubt. There is a myriad of ideas and creative possibilities inherent in every text I am drawn towards. This particular work, a setting of Native American proverbs centered on the earth and our place in and amongst it, is challenging me to provide new brush strokes that I have not used in a long time, if ever. When working with musical material that is "out of the box" I am so often consumed by my fear that what is going the page is not effectively communicating the intended poetic idea.
Let me be candid. If something is not slow and overly indulgent, can it resonate with audience members in this day and age? Most audience members in my circle of work (public school audiences and mainstream music publishers) seem to respond best to music that is "beautiful". If I am being honest, I am TIRED of beauty for beauty's sake. (Does this sound like the pot calling the kettle black?). This issue with my exhaustion is not that I feel uncomfortable writing music that challenges me as a composer, but with my concern for audience members and singers. Will they like it if it is different??
A well-known composer, whom I admire dearly, once asked me a question about this very thing, "What is your thought process when you feel the urge to make the 'easy' choice?" In short, how do you resist the desire to write music that is slow, beautiful, indulgent, and frankly, already being written by other composers? I do not remember how I responded, but in this moment I don't know that I have an answer for that question. Honestly, I am always concerned that what I am writing is derivative and redundant. The silver lining in this concern is that I have a tendency to FAIL FORWARD. I try new things, and if they work I am thrilled. If they do not, then I learn from the mistake and move on to better and more creative choices. Perhaps this is the way all composers feel.
I have thought a lot about Stephen Paulus the past few days. His music is unmistakably identifiable, yet completely satisfying. His writing walks the line between being new and exciting and accesible to all audience memebers. How does one get to this point? My gut tells me that he or she trusts their intuition. A mixture of creativity and informed compositional choices must, at some point, lead to an assurance in one's own style. Perhaps this is what I will continue to pursue.
My plan: Think long and hard about how I am setting text and what is unique about any given set of words. It is within this context that I'll close my eyes and listen to what is in my heart.