John Updike, in his long essay on writers’ last works in this week’s New Yorker, said something about writing novels that I’ve long believed was true about writing music: “It’s like sex, either easy or impossible.” The less severe way I’ve always put it to my students was, I can write a good piece in three weeks, but a bad one takes me six months.
Schoenberg said something to that effect, when asked about composing without inspiration: “Impossible!” And yet, to counter that, I’ve long repeated two helpful slogans from Virgil Thomson:
Ninety percent of composing is keeping your ass in the chair.
My muse and I had an appointment, and at least I showed up.
The point is, of course (I’m learning I’d better always spell out my points), is that composing without inspiration may be a grind, but the surest way to catch inspiration is to be sitting in your chair when it shows up.
Come to think of it, I’d better qualify even that. Composition isn’t always easy in the sense that it flows smoothly. For instance, in writing my piece Chicago Spiral, which is a nine-part triple canon at the major second in 14/8 meter, I spent three days working on one three-measure passage. (The three days were December 24-26, 1991). But it was because the form was so strict that I couldn’t get the notes to come out right, and it wasn’t hard to work on in the sense that I couldn’t keep engaged; on the contrary, I couldn’t leave it alone, and started up again as soon as the Christmas presents were opened. In that sense, working on it was easy, though the problem was difficult.