Just what exactly are “Composerly Thoughts”?

Just what exactly are “Composerly Thoughts”?

As a composer I tend to view these imaginings through the lens of music-making, but that just happens to be my lens. What I’m interested in looking at through that lens is every conceivable type of brainstorm – as well as brain-tsunamis, brain-flurries, brain-sinkholes and the faint breezes put into motion by the smallest brain-butterfly. These natural phenomena are created by every single one of us, whether we have composerly, writerly, teacherly, builderly, reformerly, or just plain humanly thoughts.

This is my very first podcast episode ever – the “title track” as it were – so this is where I let you in on the story behind this whole “composerly thoughts” notion. As with many of the best ideas ever, it grew out of failure, or in this case the dread of failure.

I was well into my first year as a graduate student at Cornell University, and I had just walked into my weekly composition lesson with professor Steven Stucky. I unsteadily confessed right up front that I hadn’t composed a single note for the second week in a row. What I did not confess was that I was hounded by insecurities and doubts, and that I couldn’t write so much as a mezzo forte without second-guessing, third-guessing, and fourth-guessing myself.

It probably wouldn’t have made much difference, because Steve had certainly already figured this out. He didn’t press for details or further explanations, but instead he replied in his typically mild-mannered style that unproductive periods were just going to happen. He advised me not to worry about it. And he said I would be fine as long as I just kept on – and these were his exact words – “thinking composerly thoughts every day.” Composerly thoughts. I was pretty sure there wasn’t a listing for that in the Harvard Dictionary of Music. So although I immediately felt a sense of relief, it was quickly followed by confusion and more doubts. What in the world were composerly thoughts? Was I thinking composerly thoughts or was I thinking un-composerly thoughts? My teachers seemed to spend a lot of time thinking about the nuts and bolts of music – its hidden structures, large-scale formal devices, and nuances of texture and timbre. Was I supposed to be spending time deeply contemplating pitch-class sets, Schenker analysis, and Fibonacci series? I sure hoped not. I only thought about those things when I was required to, and after doing so I usually took a good long nap.

My thoughts about music were unwieldy and undisciplined. I rarely shared them with anyone, and certainly not with my teachers. They went like something this: How could I sit around writing music when there was so much suffering in the world? Did I have anything worth saying? Why was I deeply moved by music that many of my colleagues didn’t think highly of? Would I ever be a formidable composer? What exactly was a formidable composer? And was it for-mid-able or for-midable? And was that what I really wanted to be anyway?

I’ve spent the past thirty years grappling with these types of questions. I mean, really grappling. Sure, there have always been nuts-and-bolts issues to work out while I’m composing or editing a piece of music, but those are just puzzles to solve, and I like solving puzzles. The questions that followed me everywhere I went day after day were so much thornier. They couldn’t be answered by any puzzle-solving techniques that I knew of. What I was looking for, but couldn’t yet articulate, was a way to integrate my musical world with my spiritual world – and by spiritual I’m not talking about religion per se. I simply mean trying to get my head around “meaning” and “purpose” and “existence” – you know, those little eternal questions people have been asking since the beginning of time. It wasn’t like my teachers were shallow or insensitive – not at all! They clearly felt things deeply, and they cared about their students, and they often spoke straight from the heart. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find a way for my musical expressions to coexist with my existential questions. I felt like two people living in the same body.

Even after receiving my doctorate I still continued to second-guess my every compositional impulse. It was artistically debilitating. Sometimes I imagined there must have been something lacking in my education, for surely at some point I should have figured out how to reconcile my music with my heart and mind. Why hadn’t there been a class on how to do that?

Well at some point it must have dawned on me that there is a class on it. It’s just not found in any course catalog, you can’t get credit for it, and most importantly, there isn’t a syllabus. It’s an independent study. The most independent study of all, for which you write your own course description and select your own required readings. Unless of course the required readings happen to select you, which they will. On my bookshelf sat a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that my friend Steve Moony had given me several years earlier, and which I’d never gotten around to reading. The first thing I saw when I opened the book was a post-it-note on which Steve had written a well-known passage. Rilke, counseling a yearning and aspiring poet, advises him to “love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books written in a foreign tongue.” My required reading was a post-it-note! I did sit down and read Letters to a Young Poet, but honestly it was Steve’s tiny handwritten memo, now stuck to the wall beside my piano, which I looked at and contemplated every day. How I wished my metaphorical house had only a few locked bedrooms, or a storage closet or two. But no, every single room seemed locked, including the kitchen which is where you’re supposed to go to find nourishment – not to mention hot tea.

Rilke followed up his famous advice to his protégé with a prediction: that the answers would be revealed only after the seeker was able to “live the questions,” which for me meant living with my swirling-around thoughts whether or not they were actually “composerly.” One by one answers did indeed begin emerging, though they didn’t tend to be nifty little keys that opened locked doors. Instead they were more like clues or suggestions that didn’t seem like they were going to do anything at all – but then one day I would notice that one of the locked doors was completely gone, revealing a glimpse of wide-open sky.

I came upon one of these many tiny clues in composer Libby Larsen’s description of what it is that we composers do. In her words, composers “organize sound in time and space in order to communicate something about what it is to be alive.” This definition blew my mind and it still blows my mind. It doesn’t say we have to know what we’re communicating when we’re constructing and arranging phrases, cadences, and other aural events into some coherent order. It simply takes for granted that this communication is happening. We show up, and we imagine it, and we build it, and something gets communicated. I’ve written many pieces which I thought were communicating one thing and later realized were communicating something I had never intended. This extra layer of communication just happened, simply because I was showing up and doing my work.

You know what else Libby’s job description does? It offers anyone the opportunity to participate in the act of composing. Anyone. Listen to the definition again. Composers “organize sound in time and space in order to communicate something about what it is to be alive.”

Is this so very different from a parent setting time aside for reading aloud at the end of their child’s day? Or the work that a compassionate teacher, family therapist, or minister does? Remember too that organizing sound includes rests and periods of silence. That means the last time you listened to a friend mindfully, holding at bay your impulses to offer advice or interrupt, you were “organizing sound in time and space in order to communicate something about what it is to be alive.”

Another clue that opened a locked door for me came from a talk that Steven Stucky gave after I was no longer his student. I think of it as a kind of a guiding principle that he used for himself when he composed. He said, “Only if I write music that makes my blood race, that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, do I have any hope of writing something truthful enough to have the same effect on another listener.” The arresting thing about both Libby’s and Steve’s words is that they are about the present. Right now. And “right now” is how music is expressed as well, in sound waves that are only ever heard one time before they start merging almost immediately with sound waves from gusts of wind, garbage trucks, and barking dogs, becoming then an inseparable part of the whole ocean of soundwaves that surrounds us. Other time-based art forms like theater and dance work the same way. The job of composers, playwrights and choreographers is typically to write down instructions so that specific pieces, plays or choreographies can be replicated time and time again. At the same time, lots of amazing music, theater and dance is completely improvised on the spot, with no notation whatsoever. It’s not what written on the page that’s making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. That happens because of the visceral creation of art happening in this very moment.

That’s why I believe that everyone spends a great deal of time each day composing. We’re all engaged in a vast collaborative temporal art form that includes getting born in the first place, meeting and parting, grieving and celebrating, getting up in the morning and drifting off to sleep at night, and finally saying goodbye to the world. Music is a tiny, artificial representation – a snapshot as it were – of something way bigger. Hopefully these tiny musical snapshots can sometimes call us to be a little more present, a little more aware of life.

Now if you’re starting to imagine that I can give you any advice about how to appreciate each magnificent moment of your life, I’ll tell you right now I will not be doing that – because I can’t. Despite spending the majority of my life engaged with an art form that only exists right here, right now, I find it irrationally hard to live my life in the present moment. I’ve often had to pry myself away from my desk in order to catch a slice of a glorious blue-sky day, lest I miss it entirely. And there have been many blue-sky days that I have completely ignored. At the same time, I probably would have missed more of those days if it weren’t for the composerly thoughts of myself and of others – and in case you haven’t figure this out yet, I consider just about every aspirational thought as a potential composerly thought, rich musings that pull me in this direction and that direction, urging me to wake up and experience “something of what it is to be alive,” and perhaps to spin some of it into song. I suspect you know what I’m talking about, because from time to time your own gray matter percolates with thoughts that lead you, like Steven Stucky, to create “something truthful enough to have the same effect on another.”

That’s why this podcast is not necessarily just for composers and musicians. Every one of us spends the precious hours of our days doing, saying and making stuff that didn’t exist before, and pitifully little of it lasts very long, but we do it anyway. Good for us. These acts of creation can’t happen without something I’ll just call: everyday hope. So really, good for us.

Dear readers and listeners, this is your official invitation to start thinking “composerly thoughts” with me. The event is an open house, so there’s no need to RSVP, and you can arrive or depart any time you wish. There’s no requirement that you bring a dish-to-pass, but if you do have something to share you know where I am!

Take care, and keep believing impossible things —