About twenty years ago, a friend of mine who is now a well-known conductor asked me to write a concerto for a young cellist who now plays in the NY Philharmonic to premiere with the orchestra he conducted in New York. I jumped at the suggestion and began working immediately. Over the ensuing months, this cello concerto overtook my life Ė I was thinking about it, and nothing else, day and night. It grew and grew, containing everything I knew, everything I wished I knew, everything I would never know about music.
As time went on, my friend grew increasingly vague about the premiere performance. I was ignorant enough to trust that things would work out somehow, and kept fleshing out my ideas.
I donít know how long this went on, but I believe it was a little over a year, by which point my studio had become overrun with hundreds of pages of score, sketch, illegible scribble. I had reams of paper taped to the walls with arrows and circles, improvisations and calculations Ė and thousands of shiny little black notes.
Then my friend called to tell me that the performance was a no-go. I was stunned. Suddenly all that work was for nothing. Just like that, after taking over my life, the piece, not yet quite alive, died a quiet death.
And then came the depression. I had completely drained my mind of any other consideration for over a year. Once the concerto was gone, there was nothing left to think about. I had no idea what to do next, and no reason to think that what I did next mattered. For a long time, I did nothing.
Of course, now I can hardly believe my naivetť: I would never put that much work into anything for which the outcome wasnít more clearly spelled out. Itís one thing to know that a piece you are working on has no performance planned, and quite another to be working toward a major performance concept, only to have it cancelled. But I was just out of school at the time and blissfully unaware of how difficult it is to make things happen in this profession.
Eventually, though, I had to dig myself out of the despondent hole I had dug. I strongly believed, and still do, that my happiness is my own responsibility, and nobody else's. I had to compose in order to be at peace, so I had to change the way I approached composition, in order to protect myself from the kind of depression I had sunk into.
What did I do? I established a composing rhythm, which Iíve written about before, of working on three pieces at once: a piece Iíve just begun, a piece Iím in the middle of and a piece Iím finishing. Iíve been in that rhythm, with a few syncopations, for the better part of twenty years now, and it has served me well. Instead of finishing a piece and wondering what is next, Iím always in the middle of something, always maintaining creative momentum. And instead of putting everything I am into one piece, I can be more specific about what each piece means, which is better for the piece and for me.
I bring this up now because Iíve fallen out of that rhythm: Iíve finished four pieces in the last two weeks. My rhythm had to be adjusted, because all four pieces are slated for premieres in the next two months. I was just focusing on getting them done Ė there was no time to consider what would come next.
And now Iím in-between pieces, a place I havenít been in a long time.
But I feel very peaceful about it -- after twenty years of uninterrupted output itís actually nice to take some time to feel a little lost, a little uncertain about the future. I guess the possibilities arenít so vast as they were when I was in my twenties: I have a much better idea of the kinds of things I need to do artistically, so being lost for a bit isnít as overwhelming as it once would have been.
And the cello concerto? Itís long gone. I had to destroy it, to at least symbolically rid myself of the malaise I had fallen into. It carried too much of my old sensibility, my old process.
The other day I was reading a thousand-year-old Taoist story to my toddler son. It reminded me why I donít mourn the cello concertoís passing. Hereís the story, in an adaptation by Jon J. Muth:
There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years.
One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.
ďSuch bad luck,Ē they said sympathetically.
ďMaybe,Ē the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses.
ďSuch good luck,Ē the neighbors exclaimed.
ďMaybe,Ē replied the farmer.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg.
Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
ďSuch bad luck,Ē they said.
ďMaybe,Ē answered the farmer.
The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war. Seeing that the sonís leg was broken, they passed him by.
ďSuch good luck!Ē cried the neighbors.
ďMaybe,Ē said the farmer.