Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

Yes, there is musical life after your 20s!

What is the cut-off for being a “young composer”? Everyone defines that line a little differently, but I’m in my mid-30s, and in my case anyway, I certainly feel like I’ve moved onto the next thing.

This transition is more a state of mind than anything else. Over the past few years, when I’ve found myself in young composer settings, I’ve gotten that awkward feeling of being somewhere you no longer belong, like when you visit your old high school a few years into college.

Also, much to my amazement, I’ve found myself confronted on occasion by composers younger than me asking for career advice. Thinking back on the past few years, I suppose I did learn a few things that would have been useful to my 20-something self. So in the spirit of paying it forward, here are some reflections on composing after young-composer-hood.

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“Mashups of the Mona Lisa” created by Dave Winer, via Flickr CC

The predominant ideology in composition today, across all genres, is rooted in pastiche. Most composers in the new music community aren’t consciously thinking about this, but we’re involved all the same. I mean, just look at the names: new complexity, neo-romanticism, post-minimalism—three of the broadest trends in contemporary music, all with echoes of pastiche baked right into their labels. Of course not everyone is writing “in the style of” or explicitly quoting other pieces, but the desire to build perceptible bridges between musical traditions is nearly universal.

And it’s not just in classical composition. Virtually all of the most celebrated new art of our time, across genres and disciplines, whether high art or populist entertainment, relies to some extent on pastiche. You will find a healthy serving of the stuff in everything from the music of Jennifer Higdon to Nico Muhly to Thomas Adès, not to mention Taylor Swift, the Star Wars movies, and the memes in your Facebook feed. Pastiche clearly strikes a chord with the cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

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CC by TakingITGlobal via Wikimedia Commons

Too many artists embrace a mystical, new-agey approach to creativity that is completely counterproductive. There’s nothing magical about being creative; it’s just something you train your brain to do through practice. It’s part biology and part routine, and Chuck Close perhaps sums it up most eloquently when he says, “Just show up and get to work.” The way I write music is not mathematical by any stretch of the imagination, and I rely heavily on intuition, but fairytales are not required.

I wonder sometimes if new-agey, feel-good attitudes in the arts are simply the unfortunate byproduct of an artistic temperament: a sort of mental ground hum that comes from plugging the creative mind into the same neurons that power other human emotions. Maybe so, but when I read something like Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, it becomes very clear that the world’s great artists are overwhelmingly immune to any such interference. They have strongly engrained routines, yes, and they may guard those to the point of superstition. They may also lead highly religious or mystical lives outside of art. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the creative act itself, great artists are extremely down to earth. (more…)

CC by Svein Halvor Halvorsen on Flickr

I saw a meme on Facebook a while ago, the one with the fake greeting card and custom text: “‘Yay! It’s the weekend,’ said no composer, ever.” Funny yes, but completely wrong. Bravado aside, if you consistently work “weekends” (meaning, you don’t take planned days off on a weekly basis), your art will suffer.

Composers think they’re being tough by never taking structured breaks and working at any time of day or night. Sometimes they use the excuse that composition doesn’t pay very well to justify this type of constant working attitude. More often, they do it as a part of the mystique of being an artist: you are so driven and inspired that you have no desire to take weekends off, you’d rather be constantly immersed in the creative process.

Unfortunately, every profession makes the same kinds of bullshit excuses, from CEOs to stockpickers. (more…)

Photo CC by Takuya Goro on Flickr

A self-help guide to becoming a composer

In the first part of this article, I talked about some of the problems with studying composition in academia, and I offered some alternative ways that composers might cultivate their craft more effectively (and probably less expensively too). Here, I’m providing a sort of Top 10 list of life lessons for composers. Realizing that you have no reason whatsoever to listen to my advice, I’m trying to couch this in terms of wisdom I have received from others or that I can back up somehow, with attribution when possible. This is by no means comprehensive, but these are definitely issues that I think every composer needs to internalize for themselves in one way or the other. (more…)