On Not Writing Music…

January 2nd, 2019

As the year winds its way to a no-doubt unsatisfactory conclusion, it dawned on me that 2018 has been my least productive year as a composer since I was in my mid-teens – all in all I have composed two works in 2018 at a grand total of fifteen minutes of music. And both of those pieces were finished in January during a brief and regrettably unrepeatable period of fecundity which resulted in four works in six weeks! Now, I have a good reason for not composing more, a 90,000 word book which will be in all good bookshops (who am I kidding…’select university libraries’) in 2019 that has curtailed much compositional activity, but it got me thinking about how little I had actually missed the act of composing, how infrequently I had found myself at a piano with the intention of creating something new – surely that shouldn’t be the case for someone who confesses to having the profession of composer? Should I be worried?

Well, the short answer is no. Whether I like it or not, I will get back on the horse and write some more music at some point soon – I have commitments to fulfil and obligations to honour – but the fact that there hasn’t been a gaping hole in my creative life that composing usually fills has got me thinking about the perception of composers and artists and the role their work plays in their lives: I wonder if there is a disjunct between the two. The model of a composer is often portrayed as someone who has a pathological compulsion to create music, that music ‘flows’ from the individual like an open conduit that can’t be stemmed and all other activities are merely diversions from the true calling of writing music. The likes of Britten, Mozart and Prokofiev comes to mind with this – if all the trappings of international success and achievements were taken from them, the music would still come, unstoppable and like a torrent. They are the true artists, the ‘vessels’ through which this music passes (to bastardise a quote from Stravinsky). But surely not every composer exhibits those traits? Surely there are those who struggle for every note and composing is a profession like any other: one to hide away from in the evenings and weekends and retire from at 65.

I’m being glib, of course, for many who retire from the majority of professions when the state instructs them to, they feel that they could go on for much longer with little impact to their performance. And in this case, composing is nothing like manual labour, where the body is exhausted by 65 and the thought of carrying on much after that would fill the worker with fear and nausea. But why is there this perception that composers ‘love’ what they do and wouldn’t be able to exist if they weren’t expressing this art in some fashion? Is it some sort of societal construct? Is it wrong to suggest that composing doesn’t come easy and that taking a break from it is much easier than you would imagine? I was at an event recently where I was asked whether my dream would be to have enough money to retire to the country to write music – I replied that my dream was to retire to the country! This was greeted with some incredulity that a truly happy scenario for a composer would not involve composing, but then how strange is that? Would one suggest an architect would still design buildings if the professional and financial need wasn’t there? Would a fisherman still fish? Maybe they would, but I’m not sure the question would be asked.

I haven’t missed composing this year, mainly because I have filled my time creatively – whether writing the book or fulfilling my academic commitments – if I couldn’t do anything creative I would flounder, that is for sure, but creating new music hasn’t been on the cards. I think when I sit down to write again in the near future, it will undoubtedly be hard and I shall whinge about not having done more in 2018, but for the moment I shall enjoy the sensation of not composing…for actively not composing is just as important as actually composing. Or not.


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