As artists, we tend to work slightly crazy hours, and never really switch off. For the majority of practitioners, it’s not for the money, the prospects, or the security (ha!). It’s because it’s something we love. It’s a good job we love it, too, as we tend to work such long hours. In the majority of cases, artists have portfolio careers and have huge to do lists they find themselves constantly ploughing through.
Along with all the self-promotion, website updating, liaising with other creative people and all the other to do list items, creative practitioners also spend a lot of time working on improving themselves and their trade. A performer will spend a lot of time on playing music for themselves – practicing, perfecting pieces on their wish list, or digging into a new volume of music by one of their favourite composers. Likewise, artists spend time honing new techniques, experimenting and drawing sketches. Why is it, then, that I often encounter some resistance when I say I’m writing some music for myself?
I spend quite a bit of time writing music for myself – be it sketches for my own experimentation and interest, pieces I’d like to develop into something further (and perhaps integrate into a commission at some stage), or writing music simply for the sake of writing music. In fact, I tend to use the latter regularly during the week, especially whilst sitting at the piano with my daughter (who loves clusters and alternating between gentle and slow and loud and mad at the moment!). Even if I’ve had a crazy day full of rehearsals, admin and teaching, I can usually still find a few minutes to sit down and write a few bars, or improvise something new – even if it’s alongside an improvising Isabelle! Although some may see these short sessions as a bit daft, I often find I have new ideas, find new sound worlds to note down to explore, or revisit and develop an idea I’ve been working on mentally all day.
This kind of working method isn’t something normally discussed by composers though, and isn’t what the outside world tends to see. When you state you’re working on a specific piece of music, the next phrase uttered is sometimes “Oh, who is it for?”. Why is this an immediate concern? My mind definitely doesn’t think like that – it doesn’t need a set group of performers in place before it starts creating music. It often just appears, or flows, and I hurry to write it all down.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I dislike writing for a specific ensemble, or that I don’t enjoy writing commissions. Far from it, I love the challenges, and I normally have a piece of this type on the go whilst also working on music for myself. However, creatively, this is a different beast to creating music for the sake of creating. As soon as you start to write something that has a particular musical purpose, there are other elements that come into play that impact on your compositional voice. You may have a particular performer in mind who you are tailoring it to, or want to reach out to grab a specific audience. There may be a certain someone you want to impress, or you want to produce something just like your favourite piece for that particular ensemble. These things aren’t necessarily negative – criteria like this can push us, help us hone our ideas and help push us to produce art. However, they all alter our compositional voice, even if only at a subconscious level.
I therefore think it’s important that all artists take some time to produce work that’s purely for themselves, and created purely for the sake of creating good art. If not, how can you be sure that anything you write is really ‘you’ at all? When discussing this with other composers in the past, I’ve often been asked “what’s the point of creating music if it’s not to be performed?”. I’m not saying this music isn’t to be performed- it could be if you want. Or it could be private pieces and musings just for yourself. Writing for yourself, though, gives you a private platform in which to develop and hone your skills and musical voice (which is always developing, for all of us – it’s not a fixed thing). Importantly, it also gives you a space to make mistakes and learn more about ourselves as composers.
Of course, as previously mentioned, the majority of creative people are ridiculously busy, juggling deadlines, admin, sometimes other jobs and other forms of income, and family life. Still, I’m sure we can all find even just 10 minutes a week to nurture our own creativity. Apart from anything else, spending some time analysing what you want to write rather than what others (society, performers, peers) think you should be writing can be quite a refreshing exercise..!