I write music for three reasons that I can name, though there may be others that elude me. These three reasons jockey with one another for primacy from one work to the next, and sometimes within one work.
The first, though not necessarily the most important (just, I think, the most obvious), is to communicate with others. When I say it’s not necessarily the most important, I have to qualify that by saying that sometimes it is the most important. When I say I think it is the most obvious, I mean that I believe that most people would assume that’s the main reason one writes music: to express one’s thoughts and feelings to others. And sometimes, indeed, it is at the forefront of what I am doing. Just as often, though, it’s buried beneath the weight of other considerations.
The second reason I write music is to communicate with myself. I think Haruki Murakami expressed this most clearly, in Norwegian Wood: “Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.” In the same way, I have to write music in order to make sense of what I am thinking, in order to understand myself. Without composing, my thoughts feel unformed and chaotic. I’m often struck with wonder at the fact that most people manage to grasp their own thoughts without ever writing down a single note.
The third reason I write music is to communicate with music itself. This is the part I understand the least, and have the most difficulty explaining. There is an aspect of composing that is a kind of strange dialogue between composer and composition. “If I push you a bit in this direction,” I ask, “how will you respond? Where will you take me?” As difficult as it is to understand and explain, this part of composing may be the most important to me – it certainly outweighs any other consideration pretty frequently, although, as I say, the various reasons are always nudging one another aside.
This third aspect of creation is beautifully exemplified in the work of Andy Goldsworthy. If you are not familiar with his sculpture, please check out the documentary Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy engages in an ongoing dialogue with the materials around him, constantly discovering new capabilities in them and in himself. Watching him gives me a visual analogue to an aural experience that has long been familiar*.
I’ve left out two of the most commonly noted motivations for composing, which at least deserve a mention: fame and fortune. First, fame. At times in my life, especially early on, the idea of being well-known has been appealing. Now, the mild brushes I’ve had with fame and the famous have made me realize that a little bit of fame goes a long way for me. I’m not keen on the idea of toiling away in obscurity, and I appreciate the little moments of acknowledgement that come from time to time. But fame can also be a hindrance. Here, again, I come to another aspect of composing that is difficult to understand or explain, but I’ll take a shot at it: More powerful than the craving to be known is the craving to disappear into the work, to lose myself in my chosen art form. I suppose fame and invisibility aren’t strictly opposites, but they often feel that way.
Finally, fortune. I appreciate being paid for my work, and I appreciate having enough money in general. Money as a creative motivation, though, just doesn’t happen. I remember my teacher, Vincent Persichetti, telling me that he didn’t allow people to commission new works from him, but he was happy to have them commission music he had already written. I haven’t kept to that path myself over the years, but there is something about it that I find very appealing. I don’t have any disdain for people who write music primarily for money: to me it’s a special talent, and I have lots of respect for special talents.
So, communicating: with you, with myself, with it. Not necessarily in that order; not necessarily in any order at all.
*Rivers and Tides also has, for me, one of the most remarkable and successful film scores of all time, by Fred Frith.