The Trajectory in the Rearview Mirror

Next month So Percussion is playing my Snake Dance No. 2 at Bard. They wanted the keyboard sampler part that I used to play when I joined in to perform the piece. I hadn’t seen the thing in years, and in fact it was not notated in full detail, because whenever I played in my own pieces I tended to improvise somewhat (like Mozart and Beethoven). So that meant I had to go through the randomly-organized manuscripts in my music cabinet to find and upgrade the sheets of paper they needed.

Going through my manuscripts is always a heavy psychological trip, a confrontation with the subconscious state of my youth. My paper files of scores, sketches, and various versions basically run up to 2000, after which most of the materials are on my computer. I ran across the repetitive little piano piece titled “Go Walking with Me,” in 8/8 meter with a curious key signature of simply an A-flat on the bass staff, that I wrote at age six. I found, once again, the brief, one-movement, tonal but pointlessly dissonant piano sonatas  I wrote in high school, with their evident influences of Copland, Bernstein, Schuman, Ruggles, and Ives. But this time around I also found a completed, seven-and-a-half-minute piece for voice and percussion ensemble that I have no memory of composing, dated 1987; and also a three-minute, finished piano piece from 1993 whose score just barely rings a bell. They are in my handwriting, with the same silly rhythmic reflexes I’ve always composed with, on my usual 40-stave manuscript paper flanked by sketches for pieces in my acknowledged output, and the vocal piece’s text is one of my favorite passages from Thoreau’s journals, so there’s no doubt that I wrote them – but how did I completely forget having done so?

The low point in my composing life, in terms of both quality and quantity, was around 1986-1990, when I was in my early 30s. In general I wrote better pieces, and made more astute musical decisions, in the early ’80s and even late ’70s, than I did during that post-graduate period. It was during my early years as music critic for the Village Voice, and the pressure of my suddenly heightened visibility was an intense distraction. I had also been introduced to microtonality by Ben Johnston, and I spent years filling notebooks with fractions and logarithms, trying to learn how to be musically intuitive in the post-12tet world. But none of that fully explains the weird detour I took. Before 1985 I was heavily into Harold Budd and Brian Eno, and exploring the avenues that minimalism had opened up. To this day, I know people who think my best piece is Long Night, from 1981. But for a few years, starting with I’itoi Variations (1985), I got back into dissonance and pitch complexity, using algorithms and tone rows (never 12-tone rows, but shorter or longer than that), and my music went through an ambitious, bombastic phase whose motivation is still a mystery to me. I was in search of some compositional system, and hadn’t yet learned that systemic thinking isn’t part of my personality. By 1992, microtonality was beginning to feel comfortable, and with the early movements of The Planets in 1994, I put all that grating spikiness behind me, returned to my minimalist roots, and I have never been tempted back. I’m sure that getting into therapy had a lot to do with my recovery. I highly recommend it.

I keep track of my composition students after they graduate, and it does usually seem that their momentum grinds to a halt in the first years after college. (I finished my doctorate in 1983.) Their lives become unstable, they work with this group of musicians and then that, they form an ensemble that doesn’t last, they have performance disasters, they get a brief chance to provide music for theater or dance, they take exhausting day jobs, and the clear trajectory they had as students wobbles badly. They lurch from one project and one style and one composing paradigm to another, with no clear continuity. Some of them leave music, while the others eventually gather themselves together and start up again in some new aesthetic place once their lives stabilize. Their experience, combined with my own, makes it seem patently absurd to me that the classical music world goes around looking for hotshot 23-year-old musical geniuses, assuming that compositional talent will always manifest in brash but competent works written in one’s twenties. The young composers I know fall apart in those years, as I did, and when their music finally begins to flower at age 35 or 40 , they are no longer considered “young composers,” and thus attractive for orchestral-commission careers. The entire profession seems based on clichéd misconceptions from history books, and an unwarranted assumption of a smooth evolutionary trajectory.

In any case, the forgotten pieces I found seemed worth saving. Both needed revision. The piano piece was too frantically virtuosic for the simplicity of expression it aimed for. The vocal/percussion piece was pretty and well-conceived but too austere, the vocal lines too slow and drawn out, the text too fragmentary, and it was a quick job to speed up the vocal lines and insert more of Thoreau’s text in the resulting gaps. Titled The Stream (Admonitions), I’m now delighted with it, and hope to hear it someday. The piano piece I called Untitled Phase Study. Perhaps revising abandoned works from more than two decades ago isn’t the best use of my time, but a weekend’s retouching did allow me to add two pieces to my worklist. And it must be one of the strangest features of a creative artist’s life that the history of your subconscious is stacked away in a cabinet somewhere, available to be pored over like a doctor examining a patient who is actually himself.

UPDATE: I should add that my lowered tolerance threshold toward my own minor and abandoned works is probably conditioned by the little-known Beethoven pieces I’ve been researching for next semester’s Beethoven class. I listened to twelve of his contredanses, some canons, and a couple early sets of variations this week, and so I’m thinking, what the hell, as long as you write an Appassionata and an Eroica, people are glad to listen whatever trivial tidbits you penned to kill time or make money.



  1. kea says

    It’s not that unreasonable to look for young composers. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, etc, all produced acknowledged masterpieces in their 20s. In the world of popular music, it’s a rare artist who hasn’t had their first hit by age 25, and a rarer one still who’s still known by age 35. In other fields, many brilliant scientific discoveries, assured first novels, etc, were created by people in their 20s. And while not every child prodigy is successful, almost every successful person started as a prodigy.

    Many of the famous classical composers differ from your students in an important respect—they never went to college. Some of them never finished high school, or even went to high school. They devoted their lives to music-making at a very early age and never looked back, and as a result led much unhappier and more uncomfortable lives than today’s middle-class, college-educated composers: overworked themselves, died young, often burned out by age thirty—sometimes ending with a triumphant self-rediscovery as in the case of Beethoven, sometimes with a slow descent into insanity as in the case of Schumann—and the rest of us are all the better off for it. But will never achieve greatness, as they did. Meanwhile, every composer I’ve known who’s gone to college has come out of it with no future and no momentum, and in some cases, no desire to ever put pen to paper again (including myself). I have no idea why people keep doing it.

    KG replies: You are parroting exactly the classical clichés I refer to. The question is not whether they produced masterpieces in their 20s, but whether they could be relied upon to keep doing so, and were recognized for doing so at the time. Ives wrote great music in his 20s, but no one mentioned the fact for decades. And whether all classical composers did the same. Stravinsky? Janacek? Dvorak? Schoenberg? Haydn? And whether it is reasonable to quit looking for good composers after they’ve hit 35. And because it may have happened in the 18th and early 19th centuries does not mean that we should assume it will also happen thus in the 21st. The statement that “almost every successful person started as a prodigy” is utterly contradictory to the facts. See for instance:

    and also:

    P.S.: I’m not printing your further reply, because 1. it only reiterates what you’ve already said, and 2. it implies that if a composer isn’t as successful in his or her 20s as Mozart and Beethoven, then you should give up and quit composing because you’re worthless, and I’m not going to allow that jaundiced, malevolent, and historically inaccurate view on this blog. If you want to claim, on my blog, that there has never been an important composer who wasn’t composing by age ten, it can’t just be your vague, subjective impression; I want to see iron-clad documentation on at least 2000 composers. You’ve contributed some valuable comments in the past, but this tired classical-music cliché has no place here.

  2. says

    I look forward to hearing those fugitive pieces. And I’m probably not the only one intrigued by “Go Walking with Me.” Nice title, by the way. A footnote on Beethoven: those trombone pieces he wrote are certainly minor works, but trombonists like them.

    KG replies: Yes, I listened to those too. They’re “late works,” and we’ll be covering them!

  3. says

    40-stave manuscript paper! That’s impressive for me. Where I live I seldom see any more than 12-stave paper, though have a few times seen some friends with bigger ones.

    Though I understand the symbolism of never having used a 12-tone row, I’m sure you are able to gannize 12-tone rows. Of course I don’t mean you necessarily should do that some day.

    (I’ve commented only subsidiary subjects, but just because I agree with the main part and would have nothing to add)

    KG replies: That 40-stave paper was wonderful, and with uncharacteristic foresight I bought so much of it in high school that I still have several reams of it left. Unfortunately, ten or so years ago my eyesight became so bad that I could no longer see the notes on the little staves, but since my cataract surgery of 2012, I’m starting to use it some again. I don’t think you could find anything like it in the world today.

  4. mclaren says

    Your description of composers after they get out of graduate school sounds intensely weird. Reminiscent of the reactions of former cult members who have to be deprogrammed after they’ve escaped.

    Those of us who didn’t have composition teachers never had to deprogram ourselves. Of course, we also don’t get the cachet of obeying the official rules of the “in” club, so our work never gets noticed. When PhD composition student X sets a piano on fire and roasts weenies over the flaming strings, critics remark: “Ooohh, look how composer X cleverly subverts the paradigms of modernism!” When self-taught composer Y sets a piano on fire and roasts weenies over the flaming strings, critics scoff: “Look at that ignorant fool, too incompetent and too unaware of compositional history to produce worthwhile music. What a clown!”

    Reminds me of Bill Wesley’s Parable of the Five-Foot-Tall Hairdo. This African tribe gauged status by the size of your hairdo, so the tribal leaders vied with one another to produce taller and taller hairdos. Eventually, the hairdos became so tall that all the tribal leaders broke their necks. The people who had short hairdos ridiculed the tribal elite…but naturally no one paid any attention to the guys with short hairdos. Only when a member of the tribal elite finally broke with tradition and started wearing a short hairdo was the new style proclaimed “genius” and “a great breakthrough” and “a magnificent leap forward.”

    And so it goes…