Archive for May, 2013

Over the years, many people have told me, and I may have told one or two myself, that you can’t really be a composer and have a family.  Now that I’m seven+ years into fatherhood, I’d like to share my current perspective.

History gives us conflicting – even paradoxical – evidence.  Bach’s twenty-one kids didn’t seem to slow him down even a tad.  On the other hand, we should probably be grateful (for their sake, if not for his and ours) that there were no little Beethovens demanding Papa Ludwig’s attention.

Although history is often illuminating, the lessons are so inconclusive and the expectations of parenthood have changed so much over the years that it really makes more sense to stick with the present.

Occupying ones imagination with music that nobody else can hear requires a great deal of focused attention, and young children would seem to be designed to suck up focused attention like an invading army of vacuum cleaners bearing down on a colony of dust bunnies.  I think it is fair to say that having children is going to put at least a temporary dent in the depth – if not the breadth — of your output.

Also, with thousands of composers crawling the planet chasing commissions, performances and other signs of attention, one is definitely put at a disadvantage if preoccupied with the well-being of wholly dependent fledglings.   There is only so much time in each day, and lost time is one of a composer’s worst enemies.

On the other hand, nothing gives you a clearer perspective on your own childhood – and any current childish tendencies you may have retained – than having kids.  Progeny can be very effective playback devices, helping you revisit your most cherished limitations and assumptions in real time.  What you do with that perspective is up to you.  For some, that kind of perspective can stunt creativity; for others (and I’ll go ahead and put myself in this category), it provides creative clarity and direction.

An immeasurable element for consideration is the love one gives and receives as a parent, a love that only resembles other loves superficially.  Again, what you do with that love is up to you.  For some, it provides contentment that serves as a palliative to the itch of ambition, slowing down the urge to create.  For others, it can bring a measure of self-confidence that impels one to seek otherwise unattempted levels of achievement.

I can only speak directly about fatherhood, and only from my own experience, and my experience is, like everyone’s, limited.  So far, the positives have far exceeded my hopes.

Motherhood is a topic both closely related and unfathomably distant.  In all the discussions about the differences in opportunity for male and female composers, I don’t believe I’ve heard specific mention of the difference between being a composer who is a woman and being a composer who is both a woman and a mother.  Anecdotally, I can say that the composers I’ve known who were also mothers didn’t have large families.  If anyone can point me to data on this topic, I’d be much obliged.  It makes sense to blame Robert for Clara Schumann’s lack of development as a composer (though their letters show him urging her in that direction), but it’s difficult to understand why one doesn’t hear of her seven children being an impediment.

I can only guess what it would be like to be the mother of many children and maintain a life as a composer.  Does anyone know from personal experience?

I realize I’m treading on somewhat treacherous terrain, full of chicken-and-egg ramifications, so I’ll just add that I don’t have an agenda, other than to raise questions I haven’t heard raised, and possibly get some answers, or at least reasonable discussion.

And, of course, I’m sensitive to the fact that just because I haven’t heard a topic discussed in no way assures that the discussion hasn’t taken place out of my earshot.

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I’m off to Seattle today.  I think I have alluded to, but not explained, the wonderful situation I am walking into.  It’s a situation every composer should be afforded on a regular basis, so I’m going to describe it in the hopes that my description might spur other organizations to imitate it.

I’ve been commissioned by Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Commissioning Club to create a septet to be premiered on their summer festival.  Over the last six months or so, the club, led by composer Jeremy Jolley, has been getting together from time to time to discuss my music.  On Sunday they will meet me — and I will meet them — for the first time, and we’ll talk about the new piece I’ve written.  Then in July I will return for the premiere.

What’s not to like about this scenario?  Curious music lovers support the creation of a new work and get a glimpse into a composer’s creative process.  The composer gets paid for his work and gets it performed before a knowledgeable, engaged audience.

There are so many communities that have the resources to create this kind of setup.  All it really takes is one person with vision and persuasive skills to bring it off.

So I’m getting ready to board transcontinental.  If I find out more about how this club works, I will share when I return.

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In my last post, I declared the intention to complete my sixth string quartet by Tuesday.

Tuesday is tomorrow.

Oh well.

As it happens, I am nowhere close to finishing this piece.  But the pressure I put on myself to get it done had some benefits.  I now have some very clear parameters I’m working with:

  • Two movements
  • First movement is a long, excursive piece; second movement is much shorter, very concise.
  • There are two possible endings for the first movement – I think that deciding how to end the first movement may be one of the last things that happens in the compositional process.
  • There is a lot of work to be done on the second movement, but I think it’s mostly clerical work (making sure all the details are in order), as opposed to imaginative work (figuring out what needs to happen).

I still intend to set it aside on Wednesday for other projects.  Can’t wait to see what I think of it when it returns front-and-center.

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I’ve been working on my sixth string quartet off and on for the last few months.  I don’t have to get it to the group that will premiere it until next January, so no rush.  But my work on it has coalesced to the point where I’ve decided to give myself a deadline of next Tuesday to finish it.

Why next Tuesday?  There are a couple of orchestra pieces I need to get cracking on, and I’m going to an orchestra concert next Tuesday night, so I figure I will sit down next Wednesday morning and crack away, preferences and prejudices fresh in my ears

But why not just set the quartet aside in whatever state it happens to find itself?  Because, as I say, the piece is at that point where some pressure – even artificial pressure — will be beneficial.  I could dicker around with it for another year, but it’s close enough to being a real composition that I want to just force the issue a bit.  Focus on getting it done, and a lot of the loose pieces may fall in place.

Really, it’s a no-lose situation.  I might not complete the piece by next Tuesday – in which case, I still have 8 months to finish it.  By forcing myself to push through it, I might end up with something I really don’t like – but again, I have another 8 months, and one of my favorite things to do besides starting a new piece is to start over on a piece I’ve chucked in the recycling.

Then there is always the chance it could turn out just right by next Tuesday.

Then I have eight months to write number seven.

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In my last post, I gave a heads-up about Piotr Szewczyck’s upcoming performance of the Violin Futura project at Carnegie Hall.  One of the items he’ll be dishing out is the premiere of Broomstick, a piece for violin and piano I wrote last year.  Here is a little pre-premiere info:

To illustrate the first of his six artistic principles – Lightness – Italo Calvino recalls the weight of the domestic life borne by women through the centuries. In a leap that conveys the power of the imagination, these women took the tool of their servitude – the broom – and transformed it into an extraordinary symbol of lightness and power, donning their steep-peaked hats and soaring off to the moon.

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