Friday, December 9, 2011

Old School Thinking

The respected composer David Lang recently released a new album on the Cantaloupe Music label entitled “this was written by hand.” The album consists of two works for solo piano performed beautifully by Andrew Zolinsky. One composition is entitled “memory pieces” – a cycle of memorial works written for Lang’s friends and the other piece is the one that bears the album’s name. It’s a name that caught my eye even before I noticed who wrote the music. In doing just a bit of cursory research, I learned that “this was written by hand” was a work created by Lang after the composer realized that he had not physically written a piece of music with a pencil since purchasing a personal computer in 1993. In his liner notes, the composer wonders whether “…the means of writing had any effect on the writing itself.”

In coming across this piece, I’m struck by just how “old school” my method of writing music has remained over the years. I was frankly astonished that a composer of my generation had not written music by hand since 1993. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. My surprise speaks more about my own working habits than anything else. With very rare exceptions, all of my music is still written by hand. Pencil against paper; eraser dust and overhead light; instead of the clicking of keys (computer or keyboard), the quiet rubbing of lead onto manuscript with only occasional breaks in the relative silence as an electric pencil sharpener whines in the air from time to time.

From days gone by: the tools of the notation trade...
I have written several works solely at the computer and have disliked the process. For me, there is something very genuine about the act of physical writing. The pencil is a metaphor of the creative process for me. As I write, I give of myself and as the music is slowly formed, I am slowly drained – much as the pencil slowly diminishes in size until it becomes too small to use. All of its energy and life now lay spread upon pages and pages of manuscript paper. I’d like to think that I have poured out myself equally upon that paper. This is the true act of composing for me. Using a computer seems like a cheat or rather, a penalty for my misuse of time and the resulting necessity to speed up the process a bit to meet a deadline. There’s no doubt in my mind that the means of writing – for me – absolutely has a profound effect on the writing itself. This is probably not discernable by a listener, yet it is absolutely something that I feel as I write.

A portion of my doctoral dissertation from 1991:
lovingly written and engraved by hand
Of course, this can only be true for me personally. It would be patently absurd for me to suggest that using a pencil is the “correct” way of composing. The mere fact that David Lang has not used a pencil in nearly 20 years and his career is much more successful than mine is a testament to this. Also, most of my students have rarely – if ever in their entire lives – used a pencil and paper exclusively for writing. Moreover, they will most likely never abandon the computer. In my early years as a composition teacher in the mid 1990’s, I used to force students to write with pencil and paper. I felt that their creativity was being dictated by how well they knew how to use computer notation software. Over the years, I have largely abandoned this rigid stance. In trying to enforce this posture, I began to look more and more like a horse and buggy driver wistfully gazing upon a beautifully crafted carriage as cars sped by.

And yet…

I can’t help but feel a little sad – and more than a little old – when simply writing a piece of music by hand has become such a novelty that it garners attention. “Writing by hand” has now joined “cooking from scratch” as an activity rarely practiced by many and I can’t shake the feeling that we are all somehow the poorer for it.