09 October 2008

Composer Angst

It is a great irony of the creative process that we are likely the worst judges of our own work, but that our opinion matters most in their creation. We are often surprised at the works of famous composers that get cited as their personal favorites, and others are often surprised at the original works we cite as our greatest achievements. Familiarity is a game changer when it comes to musical perception, and the composer is likely to know their own work better than anyone else, perhaps occasionally to the point of becoming sick and tired of a piece that has been lots of work to complete. Then there is the ego, which wants us to succeed in the worst way.

It is a great paradox of the creative process that one can be unsatisfied with a piece without knowing what to do about it, or perhaps that one can be unsatisfied yet wholly convinced that the piece must remain as it is. The romanticized notion of the piece as a single idea is not helpful here; in fact, the fallacy inherent in it is laid bare when a good piece's imperfections are readily apparent. Each piece is the result of a series of decisions, and hence, when there is a problem of this sort, composers are apt to get hung up on how those decisions came to be made, resulting in a certain brand of angst unique to them as a group.

Troubleshooting one's process as if it were a computer program only goes so far. After such troubleshooting has failed, hitting coaches are known to occasionally tell struggling hitters, "See ball, hit ball." I've found a similarly simple approach to composition ("Hear music, write music") to be the easiest to live with.

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