The following is an article I wrote for Fortnight Journal in Spring 2012, during the course of writing Old Friend for the pianist Kirill Gerstein. Since Fortnight is now defunct, they’ve kindly given me permission to re-publish it here.
It’s not quite a conviction, more of a nagging suspicion, that I get each time I’m faced with the task of writing a new piece: it’s finally happened, the jig’s up, you’ve altogether run out of ideas. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.
There are plenty of historical examples of composers who actually did “run out of ideas”. Aaron Copland spent his last two decades conducting his own previous works; Charles Ives was stymied working on his wildly impracticable Universe Symphony, falling silent for the following 35 years; around the same time, Sibelius’s inability to complete an eighth symphony cast the last 30 years of his life into self-destructive depression. The pop world can be even harsher; there’s a kind of critical glee when an artist fails to live up to the creative promise of their 20’s.
There’s something about being a composer which feels slightly fraudulent. It’s a far less Promethean occupation than the “composer” of popular consciousness. Writing music is more like refashioning something which already existed, had always existed; it’s making a sufficiently unrecognizable collage out of other peoples’ materials. Adding to this perception is the fact that it can be so much fun (people pay me to do this?) and that much of the process doesn’t feel like “work” in the traditional sense, at least not how I do it.
This week’s “work” is starting on a new piece for solo piano. Again, by all appearances, I am not exactly working, but instead playing through Chopin’s third Scherzo rather badly. I am enjoying myself immensely. Sight-reading, as opposed to goal-oriented practicing, is very freeing. You don’t have to stop and sort out all the little technical problems of learning a piece, instead you just revel in its particular world, enjoy the sounds of the piano, the blocky chords and approximated arpeggios. In the moment, you manage to convince yourself of the brilliance of your own seat-of-the-pants interpretation—yes, that’s how Chopin meant for it to be played!—even though you’ve put in no careful thought and consideration, only tried one of a thousand possibilities. In the Chopin Scherzo, my “revelation” is to take absolutely no liberties with the tempo—I’m playing every rhythm exactly as notated. This is the kind of extremist approach that may eventually lead to a useful approach to the piece, but in its unadulterated form sounds more like a stubborn bulldozer.
Still, the bulldozer approach has some merit—particularly in the middle section, where that beautiful block chord chorale alternates with fantastic-sounding descending arpeggios from the top of the keyboard. Understandably, most pianists I’ve heard take their time here; it’s a deeply expressive passage, full of satisfying harmonic shifts and suspensions (little held-over notes which, when added to an unsuspecting chord, make it sound even better—like harmonic salt). The disadvantage of all this swooning is that one loses the sense of forward momentum. It’s just chords and arpeggios randomly situated in time, rather than a long melody stretched over a harmonic progression leading to an inevitable conclusion. Some rhythmic discipline seems to be in order.