Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Simple Question

I have been thinking recently about my first composition teacher, Roger Hannay (1930-2006). It’s the mid-point of the year and a time I typically pause to take stock of my creative output. In looking at my work over the past six months, I can’t help but hear my old mentor’s voice, somehow clearer than before. What I remember most right now is not so much all the good and valuable technical training Roger provided. Rather, it’s a question he once asked me.

Atlanta composers chatting it up after a recent
performance by Terminus Ensemble in Atlanta.
L-R: Natalie Williams, yours truly, John Anthony Lennon,
Tim Jansa & Adam Scott Neal.
I just completed my fifth composition of 2013 a few days ago, a piece for solo soprano saxophone. I’m already prepping for the sixth work, a large piece for solo tenor and orchestra. There are several more pieces in the queue after that. I’m not sure about all composers, but this seems like a lot for me – especially given all the outside obligations inherent in an academic career. However, as I look over my catalog, I notice that I have been on this accelerated writing pace over the past few years. Since the beginning of 2011, I have finished 17 pieces. Gazing suspiciously on these compositions, it is natural to assume that a torrent of notes does not necessarily equal quality. After all, Edgard Varèse has very few surviving works in his catalog and is nevertheless recognized (and rightly so) as one of the seminal figures of the early 20th Century. The irony that my 17 pieces written over the past two and half years equals the entire number of pieces in Varèse’s catalog (as listed in his Wikipedia article) is not lost on me. Surely, none of these 17 works measure up to even the least of the pieces in Varèse’s entire surviving catalog.

However, focusing on one composer with an extraordinarily small catalog is too narrow a view. History is, of course, replete with great composers who have literally hundreds of compositions in their respective catalogs. So where does that leave me? Why do I compose so many pieces? What compels me to jump right into a new project having barely completed the previous one?

The new release on Albany Records featuring two works
of mine: "Tonoi VII" & "An Empty Blouse"
It’s these questions that bring me back again to Roger. I often tell the story of an important exchange I had with him early in my studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I may have already recounted it in some past entry in this blog. It’s still worth repeating. One day, probably sometime in the spring of 1983, I arrived to my lesson in good spirits having just finished a composition. I remember proudly presenting all the little doodles contained in my thick stack of dog-eared manuscript paper and eagerly awaiting some sort of praise from my teacher. Instead, as he looked over my work, Roger casually asked what I was working on at the moment. I froze. What was he talking about? Didn’t he see all that work right before his eyes? When I finally stammered out my answer, that he was looking at what I had been doing, Roger glanced up and informed me that if I was not currently working on a piece, then I wasn’t really a composer.

Over the years, I have thought a lot about that statement. I don’t believe Roger literally meant that unless I was actively composing a new work daily I could not consider myself a composer. I think, instead, he was communicating two important ideas to me. First, you cannot simply rest on past achievements. It doesn’t matter if your finest work is behind you. A creative artist must push ahead and explore. Your best work will certainly be in the past if you cease to create in the present. The second idea follows naturally from this first one. A composer must have a good work ethic. You cannot move forward and explore without considerable effort and determination. This is especially true of the path taken by creative artists.

One of the first public screenings of "A Free Bird," an
independent comedy with a film score by yours truly!
It’s no accident, therefore, that 2011 was the beginning of an active writing period for me. I had just been promoted to the rank of Full Professor at my university in the spring of 2010 and Roger’s question rang loudly in my thoughts. “What are you working on now?”  Yes, as all the pictures in this post demonstrate, over the past few months there have been lots of performances, a new commercial recording and even my debut as a film composer. But still I hear the words, “What are you working on now?”

It’s not hubris that compels me to increase my creative activities precisely at a time when it doesn’t matter as much in my professional academic career. It’s fear. It’s the fear of standing still; growing stagnant. Mostly, however, it’s the ghostly voice of my teacher ringing up through the decades challenging me to keep moving. It is neither particularly virtuous nor deleterious to write a lot of music. The same may be said for those who create at a more deliberate pace. What’s important is the attitude of the artist. It’s not about how fast or how much you write or the size of your catalog. In the end, it’s about being able to answer a simple question:

What are you working on now?