Cakes for Oneself

I was happy to read this in the New York Times, in an essay by novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours):

I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.

I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones. Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.

We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see…

What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

I should admit that when I was as young as my students are now, I too thought of myself as writing either for myself, for some ghostly ideal reader, or, at my most grandiose moments, for future generations. My work suffered as a result.

He describes meeting a very tired divorcée named Helen, holding down three jobs, whose only great diversion in life was reading:

Helen had no school-inspired sense of what she was supposed to enjoy more, and what less. She simply needed what any good reader needs: absorption, emotion, momentum and the sense of being transported from the world in which she lived and transplanted into another one.

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more important, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.

Unlike Cunningham, I have never said that I wrote for myself. I always liked Gertrude Stein’s declaration, “I write for myself and for strangers” – because it embarrassed her to have friends read her writing – but in truth I am disappointed if my music is playing and a passerby, any passerby, doesn’t stop to ask, with a twinkle of curiosity, “What is THAT?” I write music that I want to hear, of course, but there are musics that I myself dearly love, like those of Phill Niblock and Stefan Wolpe, that I would never write, because they are esoteric enough to seem predestined for only a narrow specialist appeal, even though it’s wide enough to include me. If that makes me a middlebrow composer, then I’ll proudly wave the middlebrow banner. “I write for myself” is one of those self-defeating clichés that academia acculturates young composers into, like “The music should speak for itself!” I can’t imagine that any young artist starts out thinking that his work need only bring pleasure to himself. It’s a defense to be used against having failed to engage the interest of others, which happens to us all now and then.

I also liked Cunningham here:

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire….

A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion. It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones. For many of us, there is not what you could call a “definitive text.”

This is partly why I can’t get into highly detailed notation. I put staccato dots on a few notes and call a piece finished, and the next day I wake up and look at it and say, “No no, that should be legato!”, and draw in a slur instead, and afterward I’ll change my mind again. The piece changes for me too much in my head to try to obsessively pin it down with interpretive markings. The score is a guide, like lines in a play, not a fixed objet d’art.

Such things should be admitted in the music world more often, and would be, if we were more concerned with being artists and less with being professionals.


  1. Ernest says

    I’ve twisted the idea of writing for oneself in my head, where it’s almost a joke, but hopefully it makes sense.
    I’m pretty hard on myself, and the music I create, and it really is an exercise where it’s for my own benefit. I would love it if others find something of value within it, but I can’t approach music with others in mind. I may end up altering it to please some imaginary audience.
    But if I finally like what I make, this ‘audience’ is essentially a group of people that are “me”. With this idea, I don’t have to feel like I’ve compromised anything, or taken the antisocial road. Music needs the social aspect to survive, but if you can have your cake and eat it too, aim for your doppelgangers.
    Sounds a little self absorbed, but hell, I’ll take that risk.

  2. Casey says

    THANK YOU for writing this! I try to put myself in the listener’s shoes, what would it take for me to come out and hear a concert? I also try not to deny musical pleasure when the moment permits (I remember you writing something about this awhile ago…). Sometimes it’s wonderful to bask in a beautiful sonority that gesture obsessed music is so quick to move on from.
    Anyway, It’s all so well said there’s no point in re-iterating my agreement on everything. But one other thing I love is your non-commitment to expressive marks. EVERY teacher I have ever had gets upset about my lack of dynamics/articulation. I do it for the same reasons as you describe, not because I’m lazy or want a single mechanical volume (though that can be nice) but I can envision several interpretations and don’t want performers straining themselves to interpret the music in some imaginary “authentic” way. Just last week, a teacher scolded me for having 4 pages without a dynamic, my internal response was 1.) page numbers mean nothing, at this speed it’s less than 30 seconds 2.) any performer with a little instinct plus textural changes will add plenty of aural contrast. Oh well, I’ll keep adding these things arbitrarily until I get my piece of paper from the university…

  3. Eric Grunin says

    Perhaps you accidentally reversed that last sentence?
    You didn’t use either term elsewhere in your post, but by definition “professionals” are depending on the paycheck, and so would seem less likely than “artists” to write for the desk drawer.
    KG replies: No: “Feldman drew our focus to something most of us try to avoid noticing: the dual and contradictory nature of the composer in modern society, as both artist and professional. A professional learns his craft, applies what he has been taught, conforms to the standards of the profession, knows how to work to order, and can guarantee in advance a satisfactory result. An artist scorns what can be taught, tries things that have never been done before and seem impossible, takes risks that may very well fail, but revivifies society by enlarging and rearranging our perspective.”
    The professional is out to please his employer and impress his fellow professionals. The artist is concerned with making deep contact with other human beings.

  4. Rodney Lister says

    Well, since I’m the only person whose reactions to things I can access really, I can’t imagine how I could decide what I could go on except what pleases me. (Of course one want EVERYBODY to like everything one writes, but that’s another thing.) So I’m stuck with myself being the judge of whether something is pleasing or tickles the fancy or is beautiful or is nice to listen to or whatever phrase one might care to use, and if I like it I have to hope that somebody else will as well. In any case, whether or not you buy that one should please oneself, if somebody writes something which they DON’T like, which they don’t respect or enjoy, on the grounds that somebody else wouldn’t like that, surely you’d agree that that’s not a good thing.
    KG replies: Obviously. But I do push myself to write music that is enjoyable on several levels, rather than content myself with esoteric music that I might enjoy but that few other people would get. You do the same – your music is easy to appreciate.

  5. says

    “The score is a guide, like lines in a play, not a fixed objet d’art.”
    That’s the most succinct statement of the notation issue I’ve ever come across, as it assumes the players are co-creators of the music, not mere automatons, along with allowing the music to manifest in different ways in different environments.

  6. says

    I see nothing wrong in making cake for oneself. It does seem excessive, yes; and Cunningham’s metaphor is canny (and cunning), since a cake denotes a celebration, and a celebration by oneself seems . . .
    Well, it depends on the celebration, I suppose.
    “Cake” implies extra effort and fanciness. But art isn’t necessarily about that; it isn’t always a special-occasion celebration; it can also be a practice, as any musician knows; and many performers have reported that some of their most satisfying renditions have been in rehearsal. Nothing wrong with that.
    And: esoteric music that you might enjoy but that few other people would get could very well end up being that which has never been done before, that experiments and fails, and that ends up revivifying society. I feel what Feldman’s getting at (as well as Cunningham), but I see no necessary distinction between artist and professional, and I’m grateful almost every day that Emily Dickinson and Charles Ives and William Blake squirreled away all that cake with so little encouragement from their contemporary party-goers.
    Thanks for your post — interesting, as ever.

  7. Casey says

    I think the point isn’t that you should compose only for an audience or only write music that you think people will like. Obviously, one writes music based on their personal preferences and what they are drawn to, this is where style comes from. But the point is that you should consider the audience and recognize that your creation does not exist in a social vacuum if you wish for it to have any relevance. This certainly doesn’t preclude musical innovation, if anything it’s just the opposite. I’d rather go to a concert and hear something I’ve never heard before then attend a symphony of neo-romantic schlock.

  8. mclaren says

    Rodney Lister does make an incisive point. You don’t have a lot of other reference points than yourself to decide what works and what doesn’t in a piece of music. You could always rely on audience reactions…but that depends on the particular audience, doesn’t it? Should we rely on the reaction of an audience of dedicated high modernists to a Philip Glass composition? Howzabout the reactions of a downtown audience to, say, some computer music from the GRM?
    Turning one’s reactions upside down doesn’t help you escape, it just inverts everything so you’re still trapped in the same aesthetic in the same way that Satanists are still trapped in Christianity. That was one of the traps the atonal serialists fell into. They used exactly the same musical values as the composers they despised, just the photographic negative version. To really get outside an aesthetic you can’t move in the opposite direction, you have to travel at an oblique angle.
    The adoration of novelty represents a particular aesthetic that’s gotten old and needs to be deep-sixed. The worship of anything new for its own sake has gotten so tired, it’s really worn out its welcome today. Time to press the eject button on that one. Casey remarked: “I’d rather go to a concert and hear something I’ve never heard before then attend a symphony of neo-romantic schlock.” For my part, I’d much rather attend a symphony of neo-romantic schlock. There’s some great neo-romantic schlock out there now. John Harbison’s “Ulysses’ Bow,” Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Symphony of Waves,” this is great neo-romantic schlock. More schlock, please! I for one welcome our new schlocky musical overlords.
    KG replies: I’ve sat in hundreds of audiences, and I’ve played pieces for hundred of students and other people, and I think I have a whole lot of reference points besides myself for knowing what works and what doesn’t in a piece of music.

  9. StevenJ says

    I don’t agree with your closing analogy between the perfect novel and over-notation. It’s still equally possible to write a piece that is a bare translation of the grandest musical ideas, whilst still remaining low on notational detail. Cunningham is not getting at the point that just become some novels are more densely detailed (compare Ulysses with Huckleberry Finn for instance) than others that they get closer to the notion of a ‘definitive text’, he is rather making the general point about the gap between an artists intentions, which tend towards the abstract and the ideal, and the resultant product of the novel, which is normally an incomplete reflection of the thoughts the novelist may have had, and is therefore more real and concrete. I have this feeling a lot of the time after a piece is done, and it occurs whether or not I write music that is densely detailed or bare on such things.
    Notational detail, or more generally, attention to detail, provided it is not dense at such a level that comprehensibility is threatened, is a virtue, as it is in *any* academic field.
    There *may* be such a thing as a definitive score, but no such thing as a definitive interpretation.
    KG replies: I continue to disagree that notational detail is, in itself, a virtue. It depends on the style. Otherwise, I would have to devalue a lot of jazz I love.