Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Creative Paradox - or - How Embracing the Dark Side Made Me a Better Composer

Like so many others during these waning hours of December, I can’t help but briefly pause and reflect on 2017 before charging forward into the new year. In 2017, I was again blessed to compose music, teach, travel, and receive many performances of my music, much as I have in the past. However, two events, oddly related to one another, stand out this year.

From the Georgia State University School of Music
website: the official announcement of the new gig!
The first of these noteworthy events took place back in June. At that time, I was appointed the Interim Director of the Georgia State University School of Music, an institution where I have taught for over 20 years. Sharp readers of this blog may note that this is about the time that my (more or less) regular postings here abruptly ceased. This is probably not surprising. Moving from my position as a long time senior faculty member to what many in my profession refer to as the “Dark Side” (i.e., administration) was very significant and, in many ways, life changing. I have keenly felt a much higher level of responsibility while working through a steep learning curve over the past seven months. I still feel like I am drinking water out of a gushing fire hydrant.

The wonderful contemporary music group,
Unheard-of//Ensemble performing my work, "Frontlash"
at Weill Recital Hall in NYC - 12.18.17
However, I have also found my new role surprisingly exhilarating. After having done the same thing over and over again for over 20 years, perhaps I was ready for a big change. However, despite all of the new responsibilities associated with the administrative position, I was grateful to still be able to continue teaching a bit. Bringing with it exciting new challenges and the ability to maintain my teaching to a degree, this new job seemed to have offered nothing but positives. Nevertheless, despite being generally happy with the new gig, there was one thing that concerned me at the outset: how would this administrative work affect my creative activity? Would I suddenly cease to be an active composer?

I was determined to maintain my compositional output. However, to accomplish this, I soon realized that I needed to change my life even more. In addition to being a full-time 12-month employee (good-bye long summer vacations) and learning a completely new set of skills associated with the new job, I needed to also significantly change my personal work habits. It was readily apparent, even after my first week, that late-night composing would no longer work in my “new normal” schedule. After a full day, I found that my creative energies were nearly non-existent. I therefore made the very painful decision (for me) to become a “morning person.”

Finding time to work despite the new gig and travels.
This Sonata for Violin & Piano was completed in July while
  teaching at the 3rd Summer Music Performance Program
in Thessaloniki, Greece. 
I have never been a fan of the morning. Given my preference, I would sleep late, work from the late morning to the afternoon, take a break for a workout, then dinner, and then proceed to compose until the very wee hours of the morning. That type of schedule didn’t really work well when I was a faculty member and it certainly wasn’t going to work now. So, I made peace with the idea that I would rise very early, get in a brisk workout and then compose before heading into the office every day. At first, I was skeptical that this new work flow would allow me to maintain my past productivity. After all, excluding the weekends, I no longer have large blocks of time to simply compose. Now, I must work every day, at a specific time, and for a very specific duration. As it turns out, I was right. I found that I was not maintaining my past productivity.

I was exceeding it.

In looking back over the year, I am shocked to find that I have composed over twice the amount of music I usually produce in a single year. Moreover, I still compose by hand. I have avoided the temptation to compose directly into the computer, although I know that would save me the step of taking my pencil score and notating it later via computer notation software.

Obligatory photo at Carnegie Hall. Why not?
I don't get a piece performed there everyday!
Somehow, landing the gig as Interim Director of the GSU School of Music has not only reinvigorated my academic career, but has somehow also refocused my creative activity. In a paradoxical twist, having much less time has actually given me the liberty to produce more music. I find that since I do not have any time to waste, I simply try to make good use of the time I have been given. This includes, by the way, carving out time to relax. I’m not a hermit - having closed myself off from everything but university work and composing. I enjoy my family, go to concerts and movies, cook, read, travel, and have been known to binge a show or two on Netflix from time to time. However, having been privileged to take on a bigger role at my university has made me much more purposeful in my use of time.

I mentioned early on in this post that there were two major events that occurred in life during 2017 and that they were related. The second event was the recent performance of my work Frontlash (commissioned by the very talented contemporary music group, Unheard-of//Ensemble) at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in New York City. Having a work performed at Carnegie Hall is a dream that almost every composer has and many have attained. This was my first time and I found myself deeply humbled and honored by the experience. Perhaps more importantly, Frontlash, having been composed after my appointment as Interim Director of the GSU School of Music and a product of my new work flow, is early validation for me. This particular piece and its successful performance indicate that if I continue to use my time wisely, I may be able to achieve success as an administrator and maintain a positive career trajectory as a creative artist.

With that kind of validation as a tailwind, I look forward to 2018!