Gave a seminar on my music here last week. I’m 54 years old, and almost all of our students are considerably younger than that, so I began with an attempt to define the differences between my concerns 30+ years into a career in composition with the challenges that face them closer to the outsets of their compositional journeys. My purpose was to make sure they weren’t trying to do things that didn’t fit the stage their work was in. I told them I can dress like a 20 year old, but it’s best for everyone if I don’t. In the same way, I can write music like a 20 year old, but the results are more embarrassing than enlightening. All by way of illustrating that it’s important for them to do the things that one can only do at their age, and use me as a model either for the things they’d like to be doing down the line, or for the things they’d like to avoid as they get older.
Of course, these aren’t hard-and-fast rules, just guidelines. Fine for me to dress like a 20 year old in the privacy of my own planet.
A common truism in our profession is that Beethoven’s late quartets are still contemporary, that they stand outside of time. I can acknowledge the spirit behind this assertion, but I think students have long been misled by many teachers’ emphasis on these late works. For young composers, it’s important to place these works firmly in the 1820s, emerging from the pen of a guy who had a complete grasp of his materials and was stretching them beyond what had previously been imaginable. “Study the late quartets,” I told the class, “but also study Beethoven’s early quartets, from opus 18.” That’s when he was patiently mastering every element of the music of his time, making it his own, and writing excellent compositions to boot. I’ve seen young composers miss out on that step in the process of finding their way, reaching for the mastery of the late quartets without realizing that the path to mastery is a long one. (Another way to look at it: if you master something on the first or second try, you aren’t really setting your sites very high.) In particular, I’ve seen young composers who were singled out for their remarkable achievements struggle to find any depth in their work because their progress was short-circuited by being thrust under the spotlight.
I pointed out two opposing traps that young composers often fall into:
- Sticking with what you are good at. Over time, artists tend to focus their work on the things that are most important to them. If you start from a very narrow foundation, you will focus yourself out of existence. Use this time to try things that are out of your comfort zone. The benefit down the road is huge.
- Fear of commitment. Somehow (I have a few theories on this) it’s become fashionable for composers to feel like every piece has to invent its own rules and materials. To a degree, this is healthy. But at some point, we have to wonder when the relationship between composer and materials will ever get beyond the point of superficial acquaintance. As uncomfortable as it can be, one has to be able to say, “This is me, warts and all.” Make the commitment. Or you can be like me: make several.
Hopefully the students kept those ideas in mind as I proceeded to dig into my own work. I’m happy to be where I am at this point in my life, but I also know the value of young ears – that’s something I will never have again, and anyone who has them should make good use of them while they last.