As I mentioned in my previous post, perfectionism can be utterly disabling to a performer. It took me a long time to realize that the painstaking focus a performer places on their work in the practice room must be set aside in the actual performance. A good performer prepares so they can be free in performance, but I always preparing to be as strict and exact as possible. This meant I was never much of a performer. It also meant I was always setting my sights for just beyond the horizon, tilting at the windmills of absolute perfection. And it wasn’t just “performance” in the sense of being the center of attention; I was uncomfortable being what I perceived as under-prepared for just about any human interaction. I’d have to pump myself up for hours for simple phone calls, and spend days analyzing a single awkward exchange with a stranger. I’ve overcome many of these demons (I now hold a job where I speak at length with strangers on the phone), but they kind of ran my life in college, which I think is why the prospect of composing music was so appealing to me.
When I got to college, I had some familiarity with experimental music, thanks mostly to a high-school friend who had a fascination with music theory and experimental composers like George Crumb:
(At the time, I thought this type of Augenmusic was pointless and dumb, which is amusing for me to think about now.) So I wasn’t a total naïf, but I still hadn’t really considered what composing could mean. I quickly joined my college’s free improvisation/new music group, and was exposed to all kinds of madness:
(this is seriously one of the first things I encountered in college)
(do yourself a favor and watch this whole thing)
(do yourself a favor and don’t watch this whole thing)
(I know I already included a Cage video, but this was too weird to pass up)
It wasn’t just that this blew the door open for what music was — it doesn’t take much to expand that definition — but that it expanded my view of what it meant to participate and interact with music. Performers could wrestle with all kinds of interesting issues regarding interpretation, but the frontiers of musical thought were always going to be populated with composers; performers think about what’s handed to them, while composers are the ones doing the handing.
As if the ambrosia of unbridled creation wasn’t tempting enough, composing actually rewarded (and in many cases, required) the kind of painstaking perfectionism that was holding me back as a performer. I no longer had to worry about hitting all the notes — all my mistakes could be corrected in editing, long before a performer ever saw it, and even longer before an audience ever heard it. The time I put into composing and editing yielded measurable results in a way that practice never did, and the result was something that I cared about on a much deeper level than some sonata I only chose because it was appropriately difficult. There was only one issue: the fallibility of performers.
I don’t mean to disparage my performers — I’m always grateful to anyone who has put any time at all into making my pieces come to life — but performance errors are simply a fact of life. Even the best performers in the world miss, frack, and flub notes from time to time, and that doesn’t even take into account the subtler interpretive choices they make that may differ from the intent of the composer. That latter part is often considered the most valuable asset of composer-performer interactions, but it only frustrated me in my pursuit of making the sounds I heard in my head hearable to others. The result was an attitude that completely devalued the performers input into a piece as something that can only pervert the composer’s intentions. That’s a terrible way of looking at things, and is totally unfair to more or less all of the performers who ever have or ever will live. Clearly, I needed to change my attitude.
My method was to turn those “mistakes” into assets, composing music that relied on performance errors to generate spontaneity and interest. Performance errors were no longer blemishes, but necessary components of a successful performance. Moreover, this method required a change of goal, from attempting to make sounds in my head a reality (which, on a self-serving level, is utterly pointless, and actually strikes me as masturbatory) to allowing performance to create music I never could have imagined. This type of music highlights the transient nature that is inherent in all music — no two performances of any piece are identical — but amplifies it to a degree that can’t be ignored or glossed over. Where we might talk about a single performance of a traditional piece as being a representation of that pieces “ideal” (or Platonic) form, there is no such form for these transient pieces, at least not a specific form.
Whoa. Sorry — I really didn’t mean to get this far off-topic.
The world of composition can be a bit impenetrable (as if those videos above didn’t confirm that), and not particularly welcoming to a newcomer. Actually, I realize now that most of that intimidation existed entirely in my head, but at the time, I thought it was really important that I impress my fellow composers. Part of that is probably because I didn’t consider myself a composer, being such a latecomer to the discipline, and part of it is because I thought the composers at my school were really cool. At any rate, it led to a lot of posturing on my part (which may be why I’m so liable to launch into manifestos [or maybe I just like talking about myself]), and led me to be the kind of dickish artist-type that I fortunately never had to deal with as a new composer. I think I’ve largely grown out of this attitude, but I regret that I was occasionally less than supportive to the peers I deemed hacks.
As I gained some maturity and some self-confidence as a composer, I lost the poseurish posturing that I relied on as an unsure beginner. I’m happy to say that I no longer consider myself a fairweather fan of composition, nor a composeur (I went ahead and registered the domain name composeurphobic.com [it just redirects here], potentially for a sister blog [albeit a smaller, nerdier sister] down the line [fricking composeur.com cost $2000]), but I worry that I may have only gained self-confidence by the default of aging into an elder statesman role in the composition studio. This doesn’t shake my composerly self-confidence, but it makes me worry about the prospects of gaining self-confidence in other areas of my life. I can’t really count on aging into much these days, and it’s far too slow and passive a process for me to really hang my hat on. That I’m no longer a composeur is great, but I’m not sure the lessons will be useful in my battles with poseurphobia in general.
(Just for fun; the internet is weird)