We all know the challenges that come with trying to describe music with words. I have nothing but respect for those critics who are able to do it effectively, regardless of whether I agree with their perspectives or not. Words are wonderful for saying many things; music is wonderful for saying other things. Occasionally, the two overlap, but more frequently they don’t.
Composers pinch their toes in these ill-fitting shoes all the time. Case in point: I recently was asked by an arts administrator to answer the following question with regard to my music:
Briefly describe your work as an artist. Your description might include: the main concerns or issues in your work; your principal influences; or what drives you to make your work. Please limit your response to 250 words.
On the surface, fairly simple. But the can of worms becomes apparent if we rephrase the question like this:
Briefly describe your life. Your description might include: the main concerns or issues in your life; your principal influences; or what drives you to live. Please limit your response to 250 words.
The person asking me this question has my utmost respect and consideration – after all, what can I accomplish without arts administrators doing their wonderful work? But the summary he is calling for presents me with a quandary of focus, like asking a jet pilot to summarize a life of flying while he’s in the midst of some complicated maneuvers. Try as I might, I find the only honest answer to his question goes something like this:
I don’t know how to generalize about my work. Each composition or group of compositions raises its own issues that I find interesting, worth pursuing, often for reasons I don’t fully understand. Once the works are out there, it may be possible for others to generalize about them, but by that time I am more concerned with the next pieces, the next sets of challenges, because those are the issues that only I can address, and they deserve my full attention.
Anything more than that is putting a sumo wrestler’s feet into toe shoes: the result isn’t pretty, and you just annoy the sumo wrestler.
But again, I want to be respectful and considerate, so I need to figure out how to be truthful in a way that honors the question.