The Score
Four Innovative American Composers Sound Off
Reprinted from The New York Times
Composer House Arrest
Many people think that all composers are dead men with puffy white hair. It’s not true. There are plenty of us that are showing signs of life, we’re just sequestered at home trying to find time to apply for grants, answer e-mail, chase down payments, send out scores, and maybe even write music. We can only fulfill the romantic image of a tortured composer at work after we’ve tackled mounds of administration and paperwork. I value every moment that I spend writing music, and recognize the fact that it takes a lot more than inspiration to get there.

At first glance my job might appear monotonous: every day I sit in the same spot, adding, subtracting, and moving notes around. I affectionately refer to the high-pressure periods before a deadline when I rarely leave my apartment as “composer house arrest.” But even on days when cabin fever sets in, and I feel the solitary twinge of working alone at home, I remind myself that each day brings a new artistic challenge. The compositional process itself is always different, and each piece is a new creature, inspired by my current state of mind (and the sounds that inhabit it), and by the performers for whom I am composing.

Annie GosfieldThe composer, with one of the
fruits of her labors. (Photo: Josh Gosfield)

Then I try to make sense of the materials. It’s a combination of adapting, finessing, smashing, dovetailing, and discarding a lot of different elements. Once I’m close to three-quarters done with a composition, I’ll throw away about a third of what I’ve written, tighten up what I’ve got, repeat some elements, adapt and combine others. Sometimes there is no more important step in the creative process than taking out the garbage.

I’m a monotasker, so I’m happiest working on one piece at a time. At the moment, it’s a chamber concerto for cello. I first discussed the possibility of writing a concerto with the cellist Felix Fan about five years ago, and now, in the blink of an eye, the deadline will be upon me. And I’m slow.

My methods are inefficient, impractical, and labor-intensive, but they work for me. I agonize over the subtle differences between fortississimo and fortissississimo (fff and ffff). I create micro-intervals that are smaller than the adjoining notes on a piano, and pepper the score with little arrows that point up or down in order to represent these small rises or drops in pitch. I strive to create a perfectly realized cacophony, shifting pitches and rhythms around until every note is exactly where I want to hear it, in order to achieve my own version of finely-tuned noise. I’m hopeless at recycling, so I start every new piece from scratch. Occasionally I’ll begin with a formal structure or a basic concept, but more often than not, the composition takes on a life of its own, and these initial ideas are discarded by the time a piece is finished.

My day starts at about noon. It sounds leisurely, glamorous, maybe even decadent, but it’s as long as most work days, it just starts later. I work every day of the week, and rarely take a vacation (if I’m lucky, I’ll tack a couple of days on to a research or business trip). I don’t have a set routine, nor do I want one. I can’t jump out of bed and dive straight into composing, I have to warm up my brain and sneak up on my own music.

I generally start composing after I take care of some administrative tasks, lunch, and caffeine. Even on days when I feel like there is no new music inside me, I take the four steps from my couch to my home studio, and go through the ritual of setting up for work. Each day brings a new set of circumstances, a new mindset, and a new and unique environment for writing something that I may not come up with on any other day. If I don’t compose for a day or two, it can be hard to reacquaint myself with my work, and if I go a few days without composing, my mood darkens, so I try to chip away at those notes every day. Often I’ll run out of concentration before I run out of time, so I take breaks. A typical eight hours might consist of four hours of writing, one hour of pacing, an hour of fiddling with the computer, an hour for dinner, half an hour of talking on the phone, and (in total) a blessed half hour of drinking coffee.

A really good workday usually finds me at midnight, still shuffling notes around, unshowered and still in my pajamas. If I’ve composed 30 seconds of music, I’m happy. Sometimes I’ll just write a few seconds’ worth, which might be a critical measure or two that will lead me to a new idea. The size of a piece makes a big difference: I can finish one minute for solo piano much more quickly than one minute for a chamber work for seven players (my current project), and writing for an orchestra of close to 100 musicians can take much longer. I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m slow, and that I can’t crank out reams of music. But it’s still hard to deal with the occasional washout, in which a day’s work leads nowhere.

For each new piece, I go into a period of immersion. For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a chamber cello concerto that will premiere at Merkin Hall on May 3. I meet with the musicians (in this case, Felix Fan) to try out musical ideas, and get a sense of the musician’s personality, strengths, what they love to play, what challenges them, maybe even what whiskey they prefer. For me, the difference in writing for a specific cellist and just writing for cello is enormous. When I’m faced with writer’s block or flagging inspiration, a meeting with the musician for whom I’m writing can renew the excitement of creating a new piece. It’s a reminder that all my hours of work and lost sleep mean very little without having a musician to breathe life into the music, and infuse each composition with his or her unique energy and personal experience. And there’s nothing like sharing a couple of shots of whiskey to build the composer-performer relationship.

Part of the immersion process is getting comfortable within the confines of a new piece. It’s a lot like breaking in a new pair of shoes: awkward at first, but worth weathering the discomfort. The last piece I completed was for solo piano, which I composed after working on an orchestral piece. The two pieces have much in common stylistically, but the difference in the approach of writing for one musician or close to 100 musicians is huge, almost like building a cottage versus planning a city. It can take me ages to readjust to new materials and work methods. The early stages of writing a piece involve a lot of experimentation that may or may not lead somewhere; I’ve learned to accept musical missteps and red herrings as part of the process.

Some composers work with pencil and paper at a desk, and can imagine a fully orchestrated piece in their head. I can’t. For years, composers who worked at a piano (as opposed to a desk) were subject to criticism, a point that became much less relevant after Stravinsky declared that he always worked at the piano. I balance my time between working with pencil and paper (beginning sketches, rough ideas) and using my Mac (larger pieces, more instruments). Using a computer is a more technologically advanced version of hammering it out on a piano, a way of getting beyond the two-hand limit of 10 notes at a time.

Since I started as a pianist, maintaining a physical connection with my instrument when I compose is critical. It’s also important to me as an improviser to have the freedom to experiment with musical materials on the piano or keyboard before I commit every note to paper. Although using the computer might appear to be a mechanistic process, I am able to capture my initial musical inspiration and ideas, and then reconsider the position of every note, rhythm, chord, and timbre, and slowly edit, refine, and shape the work.

After the creative compositional work is done, a score and separate part need to be created for each musician. It’s the final step, the bridge between a composer’s vision and a musician’s interpretation. it can entail many hours of uncreative, repetitive work for the composer or copyist, but all of the time poured into developing a work mean nothing if the musician’s part is unreadable.

In a week or two I’ll be finishing up my cello concerto, bitching about my carpal tunnel syndrome, and complaining that I’ll go blind if I stare at one more page of manuscript paper. But this mysterious language, these odd little dots on the page and what they become, keep us in their thrall. What starts as an abstract arrangement in one’s brain gets translated to paper, so that in the end, a note, a phrase, a gesture, can be brought to life by a musician. Somehow these fleeting indicators of how long, how loud, and how high each note should be have enormous power to move us emotionally. Why else would anyone devote a lifetime to pushing around itty bitty black dots?

Read the other articles:

Factory Girl

Bringing in the Noise

How I Learned to Love the Wrong Notes


The Score is a series of articles by composers published on TimesSelect
accesible to subscribers of the New York Times