Thoughts on composing

When you decide early that you want to be a composer, you get used to people asking you “So how do you plan to make a living at that?”  Sometimes the question is aggressive, sometimes kind and genuinely curious, but either way it’s a little reminder that you’ve got a challenging path ahead of you.  Still, when you’re 16, 17, 18, it’s easy enough to shake off the reminder pretty quickly—especially if you’re lucky enough to have parents as incredibly supportive as mine.

Now, though, it’s getting harder for me to ward off the sense that the clock is ticking.  Of course, I’ve known the answer to the question of how to make a living at composing for a long time: you get really good at it.  You listen widely, you put in the hours, you learn how to work well with ensembles, and you cultivate every ounce of creativity you have.  This is all work I relish, but it’s work I’m beginning to feel behind on.  It’s so easy to look at the depth of the gap between the music you’re making now and the music at the edges of your imagination, and feel panicked that you’ll never scale that wall—or at least that every other composer your age will scale it so much sooner.

Though a kick in the behind now and again can be a good thing, by and large this panic isn’t productive.  It creates an uncontrollable urge to produce work now, so you write without the reflection that produces original ideas.  As proud as I am of some of the work I produced at Princeton, this is an urge I often gave into there.  It’s hard not to.

So, I realize just how very grateful I am for this year, for this pause and chance to learn so many of the things I need to learn.  UCC’s composition program demands hard work, but it also insulates you in many ways.  My classmates here are not wildly competing for commissions or applying for selective summer festivals, like my friends back home.  At UCC, I’m told work is good or not so good, but I’ve yet to see a single grade.  There’s a really lovely focus on simply learning to do the things that interest us and on developing our own particular musical voices.  In a way, this year is a bit of a creative retreat for me. 

I can already see the ways in which this has done me a world of good.  Last week the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe came in to our weekly research seminar to speak about her music.  Ireland is a country with an extraordinary number of composers per capita, but Jennifer is at the top of the heap.  She’s done a wealth of incredible—and incredibly creative—things, from staging a series of concerts by a group of fictional Irish artists to creating a puppet opera for Barbie dolls.  Some of it is pretty out there, but she makes it work.  It was fantastic to hear her talk about her work and I was grateful for it, but I know that six months ago I would have found it hard to listen without my admiration being tinged with a bit of angst—would I ever be able to do this, to not only continually churn out such varied ideas but to keep up the social energy to make sure they were realized?  Now I’m getting better at saying, “Okay, Flann.  Calm down and just think about what it is that you admire in her work—how might those things translate to your own music?”  That’s the only useful reaction, and one that I hope will have changed my work for the better by the end of the year.  Ireland is teaching me some lessons.

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