Composers’ Brains Change

When school ended I had been asked for new pieces by three people, and I have now finished two and a half of them. This morning I put the final touches on a piece for viola and piano, Scene from a Marriage, for my Bard colleague, violist Marka Gustavsson. I also completed, this afternoon, a tentative first draft for a 25-minute string quartet in one movement, titled The Summer Land of Time, for a concert Carson Cooman is organizing at Harvard. And yesterday I reached the halfway point in a new piano piece. It’s 38 minutes of music since the last week of May, which amazes me because when I was young I was such a damnably slow composer. 

What I’m also surprised by is that I have virtually been writing these three pieces at the same time. This has never happened to me before. I have sometimes worked on two pieces at once, but inevitably one piece always became the “main” piece, and the other I ended up calling my “trash can” piece, because I would throw into it all the material that didn’t work for the main piece. (It has always seemed to me that, while you’re composing within certain limitations, all the things you’re not doing start crowding your brain for attention, and by having a “trash can piece” you have a place to temporarily stow all the things you’re not achieving in this piece. For instance, you’re writing an adagio, and all these wonderful fast ideas come up that you feel guilty for not writing. My “trash can pieces” usually never make it past the early sketch phase. I wonder if other composers think this way.) Anyway, I was absolutely convinced that working on two pieces at once and giving each your full attention was impossible. But I seem to have done it now, carrying three pieces continuously in my head. I’ve long been convinced that, sometime in a composer’s early 20s, his or her process changes. You start out being inspired by sonic ideas that appear almost unbidden in your imagination, and without which you are unable to write. At some point you shift gears so that the initial inspiration is no longer sonic but formal, and you learn to compose without being inspired at first, and the inspiration will surge in once you’re working well. I can sit down now and compose at a moment’s notice in a way I never could at 25. And now I’m wondering if my compositional process is going through another shift, allowing me to compose in multiple streams at once. Any composer old enough to have been through this is welcome to describe to me what I have to look forward to.
Allow me to also note that 25 minutes nonstop is a long slab of music to keep in your head at once. My previous longest single movement was the second movement of Sunken City, which was 18 minutes. I don’t see how Feldman did it, or even Mahler.


  1. says

    I’m glad you’re back in the saddle, Kyle. Just for the record, I have never been able to turn any of my rejected sketches into anything worthwhile. It saves a lot of time to throw the junk away. I also know that there’s always more where it came from.
    Sometimes when I improvise I feel guilty that I’m not stopping to write things down (thus ruining the magic of the moment), but I think it is far healthier to consider my moments (or strings of moments) of improvisation as creative moments of freedom, because I don’t have to write things down. As soon as I do, it becomes something entirely different. Sometimes it becomes junk, and sometimes it becomes useful material. Mostly it becomes junk that I never use for anything.
    The good thing about improvisation is I know that there’s more where it came from. And, best of all, I don’t need to evaluate it while I’m doing it. It is always enjoyable to do: it just flies into the air, and then its gone.
    By the way, Feldman wrote his long movements by using long note values at slow tempos. Mahler wrote his long movements because he was used to dealing with ideas developing over long periods of time because of his job as an opera conductor. He understood dramatic development. He also worked with (and wrote) texts that demanded time to be properly illustrated. Form, for him, followed function (and followed form as well).

  2. says

    Interesting, and true, in my experience. My experience, however, seems to be almost the exact opposite of yours! When I was in my 20s I was able to generate VAST amounts of music in a short amount of time. I rarely worked on more than a single piece at a time, although I would keep a sketchbook of ideas for other pieces that came to my mind as I was working on my main piece. As I’ve gotten older (I’m not THAT much older, though I am pushing 40 now) I find that my process has slowed down quite a bit. Where I could write a 15 minute piece in about a month before, now the same piece might take me three months. Granted, some of this is simply because I now have a wife, kids, and a job (or, rather, many jobs, since I’m essentially a freelancer with only a part time academic gig at the moment AND I run an ensemble–although if one of the requirements for a job is to get paid, then that one doesn’t count as a job, even though the hours can be brutal), all vying for my time. Another important reason why this is so, however, is that I’ve simply slowed my process down to take my time with every idea and guarantee that it’s the best idea that I can have (one common aspect of my earlier pieces–a big reason why I only share one piece I wrote between 1991 and 1998 with anyone–is a fascile quality that came from composing without taking time to evaluate every musical idea I had). Also, it doesn’t help that the average length of my pieces and the average size of the ensembles I write for has grown considerably.
    Which brings me to your last, somewhat off the cuff (but still important, I think), remark: how did Mahler and Feldman (or Louis Andriessen, or Nicholas Maw, or any other composer of large pieces) do it? Formal planning (well, maybe not Feldman, at least not according to him). I find it impossible to write more than a few minutes (3 at most) of music without some formal planning, whether I completely stick to the map I set for myself in that planning or not. Most of the composers I admire who write large pieces engage in something like this, whether it be the large, sonata-based, tonally driven designs of a Mahler, or the interchangeable modular devices used by Philip Glass. But I suppose that’s what you meant when you said that for older composers inspiration tends to be formal.
    KG replies: Maybe I composed slowly in the ’80s because I was underemployed and had the time, whereas now I squeeze composing in among a million other things. And the formal planning thing is a real bugaboo for me – when I was young I overplanned, and now I try my darndest, like Feldman, not to plan at all. Not necessarily an approach I’d recommend to everyone.

  3. says

    I wrote a post of my own based on my experiences of attempting multiple pieces at the same time. I think this sort of experience is good for a composers head (at least it is for me).
    I hope this sort of success continues for you!

  4. says

    Great read. With our trade being so esoteric in nature, I don’t doubt that we all have spent much time in self-analysis contemplating this very topic. Although I am certain it differs from one to another, I find myself in line with the experience you described. In my days of study, it was that internal sonic impetus that would drive my work but now I find myself more focused at the offset on form, and actually, rhythm. I have found for me that doing it that way frees up your mind and allows you to compartmentalize much more easily.
    Keep up the good work!