Making The Best: A Short Musing On Perseverance & Ingenuity

IMG_0906Making the best of a bad situation and/or limited resources has thus far been the hallmark of my creative and professional output. This is a skill that I find integral to being a well-rounded composer in any time. Yes, any time. We must remember that often our famed composers of yore did not have the multitude of resources and players that the classical market is accustomed to even in these present times when the American orchestra is in a state of economic and organizational crisis. The list of composers throughout history who had to employ or ask favor from friends to perform their music is long and astonishing. Likewise many composers that we remember today from yore had posts at various institutions and courts of the day, writing largely for the players at their disposal in these places. A wonderfully vivid example is the large body of work written by Antonio Vivaldi for the girls at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, Italy. I am not the first and I am sure not to be the last to “make the best” of limited resources and difficult situations.

Along my journey as a young composer I have been faced with many career obstacles. I present these scenarios not as a pity-fest but perhaps an inspiration for those of who are facing struggles in their life as a creative professional.

Limited Resources

One of my first memorable challenges after childhood in the field of music was the direct result of having compositional ideas and not having players at my beck and call who were able to manifest the ideas into reality. My solution was my first ventures in to electronic music, by layering parts I was able to experiment with to some degree the textures and sound-scapes which had until that time eluded me. (Of course now anyone who knows me has heard of my rant about electronic music and “the ever-present damnable grid”)

From 2008 to 2010, when I moved to Lakeland for my studies, resources became even more limited. My compositional output at this time relied almost exclusively on electronics. Upon my return to St. Petersburg I discovered a rich resource for inspiration and performance in the piano faculty at St. Petersburg College. Slowly but surely I began to happen upon other sources of inspiration and performance venues. A few months ago I recorded an aleatoric work for piano, bassoon, drum set, marimba, tamtam, tubular bells, timpani, bass drum, viola, vocals and horn in f. This spring, the St Petersburg College Men’s Concert Chorus and a number of talented instrumentalists will premier and record my rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells.

Something that is rarely stressed (often because of virtual instruments and notation software capabilities) is the art of composing for limited instrumental resource. Too often does the computer lead one into composing things which are unplayable and/or difficult to get performed particularly in an area that is not New York, Chicago or San Francisco or any place where there are a plethora of willing and advanced musicians to bring one’s music to life from the page.

There are several important questions the composer must keep in mind when beginning a composition beyond the normal musical language architecture and Schoenberg speaks of these concerns in his outline for a book on orchestration. These are all practical in nature yet it is surprising how many young composers I have come across who are not aware of or rather do not take the time to think of:

IMG_0948What are the capabilities of the players?

Not every composer has the New York Philharmonic on speed dial and it’s important to understand the average capabilities of a horn player who has only been at the instrument for five years or the beginning cellist who has not yet made it to the thumb position or the intermediate pianist who is on the cusp of advance literature but not quite there technically.

A good composer with the opportunity to observe a singer or player who will likely be performing their work after it is written will take in the nuances of the performer. A seemingly simple and yet difficult task and always if you have questions about the particular difficulties of an instrument or limits of a player ALWAYS ASK! There are of course books with generalizations about range etc. but you should always ask someone who plays the instrument (WELL) about nuances that you cannot perceive through intuition alone.

How many players can I get to be involved? (Will I have to pay them money? How much can I afford?)

We are not all Phillip Glass. We are not all Hanz Zimmer. We are not all John Corigliano, and we are certainly not all, the great Samuel Adler. We do not each have $200,000 commissions or even $10,000 commissions. So hiring a full orchestra unless a college or community orchestra is at your disposal is in many cases difficult or unattainable at the present juncture.

Once you have zeroed in on how many people you can involve and the capabilities of your players the range of your work begins to take shape.

What are the acoustic properties and nuances of the space or medium in which the premiere of your work will take place?

This is something that not too many people consider from a subtle perspective. Yes, it is often considered that a large space requires more players but it goes beyond that… the composer should ask himself:

  • How does sound die away or sustain naturally in this space?
  • How would the placement of specific instruments/vocalists create or detract from the texture/sound architecture of the work?
  • How does the placement of microphones/the audience effect the presentation of the work?
  • How does the natural ambience/lighting/noise floor affect the experience of the work beyond the auditory event?

Those Who Say You Can’t

At every level of my development as a composer and performer there have been many people who have made hateful remarks and tried to put me down. Without naming names let’s just say I’ve heard the gamut of insulting comments and snickers from strangers, acquaintances, even those who I considered to be close friends. What I have learned is that these people will always exist in life; they live and thrive on negative energy, sucking the positive energy from those they prey on nevertheless the best thing you can do is remove yourself from the drama both physically and mentally. In my darkest hours and shinning triumphs of my young life there has been but one constant… music. It’s human nature that when one is insulted one seeks to prove the insulter wrong. This is however, no way to live, for when we concern ourselves with the thoughts and prejudices of others we become bleach-washed shells of our former selves. The good that might come from the actions of proving them wrong is forever tainted by ill intent. This said piano practice became my refuge and to some degree a healthy obsession. So what advice do I have for those who are experiencing lack of motivation or frustration with how they are perceived?

Look Inward

Yes, a large degree of music is created in turmoil but if you can center yourself and get to a place where emotions are not the controlling force in your life, you can step away reanalyze and emote deeper subtleties within a work.

IMG_0958Practice Can Be Meditation

One of my favorite things about practicing is that it requires a oneness of the mind. As the Buddhist monk raking sand it is repetitive and can be soothing. I often tell people that the reason why I enjoy practicing for hours and hours is because it is peaceful. When you practice you must forget the worries and trivialities of this life because your brain must focus on the task of music and your soul must concern itself with the interpretation of music. This can be very freeing. Often when encountering a difficult passage we begin to tense up and get frustrated, here is where the meditation could end. When you approach these hurdles in music as in life… take a step back move slowly and from a different angle. In this exercise we learn to embrace something forgotten by many in western world of hustle, bustle, obsession with material gain, search for happiness in other people and things… stillness and a deep understanding of the self.

Practice Can Also Be A Game

Not a game in the traditional sense of the word for we are concerned with the task of becoming a serious musician but a little fun is always a great reprieve from the somber. My favorite games are those of articulation and those of memory. Take a scale or very simple passage and figure out how many different ways you could articulate the same section or scale; often the possibilities are endless. The memory game is great especially for polyphonic works. Take one voice and follow it through the piece memorizing note by note go as far as you can then put the other voices with your memorized voice and try highlighting that memorized line. I’ve never been into video games but for me these games are about as addictive as the new rave game of the week, and because there is a plethora of music on this planet and the IMSLP is at the fingertips of anyone with the internet you will always be challenged with something new!

Practice Is The Only Means Of Bettering Yourself

I am reminded of my former teacher Dr. Sanchez’s story of The Rhythm Fairy about practicing with a metronome. You can’t just go to sleep one night and expect that while you are sleeping a woman in a gossamer dress decorated with musical symbols is going to materialize in your room wave a magic wand and take away all your musical issues. And everyone has slip-ups and things about their performance and/or technique that they want to “fix” or improve upon. To think that you or anyone else is going to be a perfect performer or composer is foolish. We are all human and we are all subject to err. We have chosen to pursue a career in a subjective profession and must realize that what some love others will hate; this is why we must embrace the fact that we cannot please everyone. There is one person who we must please at the end of the day and it isn’t your spouse, significant other, the concert promoter, a committee, a jury, your manager, or your teacher; it is you the performer, you the artist, you the sculptor of sound. You have to put the work into practicing and by doing so you are putting in work to deepen the relationship with yourself. Through our extrinsic understanding of music there is a two-fold development: an intrinsic perception and understanding of music as well as an intrinsic perception and understanding of our soul/higher-self.

So in conclusion, there is no conclusion; life is a cycle of perseverance and ingenuity in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. This is as true for the farmer, the monk, and the wayward street ruffian as it is for the creative professional. The best we can do is to take the time to understand our nature, to embrace stillness, to live a life of patience and peace.

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