For the better part of last fall, I experienced what seemed to be my first real struggle with writer’s block. I had just finished composing my Three Scenes for guitar quartet and strings over the summer, which I began not long after finishing the editing process on another big work, my Kawartha Sketches. When September came, I was back on a regular practice regime in preparation for a run of concerts in October and November so I didn’t have much time for composing. When I would try to start something, I would always find myself stopping and/or losing interest. So, I wound up with lots of little bits here and there, but nothing I felt I could really develop or work on. The reason I would stop or lose interest was not only because I was shifting my focus to performance more, but it was also because critical voice in my head kept constantly entering in before I could get anywhere.
In retrospect, I realize that I didn’t really have any clear goals or objectives in mind when I sat down to write – I was just wondering aimlessly most of the time. I imagine this a problem for other performer/composers that end up writing for themselves more often than others at first. A commission from someone else can be helpful in the sense that certain parameters and restrictions are usually a big part of the deal, which can of course help focus the creative process. I decided to come up with some restrictions of my own and started with making a mental list of genres I had not yet tried. One of them was a set of variations, so that’s what I stuck to in my next attempt at something.
Through the process of working on this new piece – which I am tentatively calling October Variations – I was messing around with the main five-note motif that the variations are based on and came up with this inverted version of it that I couldn’t quite make work. I really liked this new idea, but it wasn’t working for the piece it was intended for. So, I took the idea and used it as a seed for a completely different piece – why not? What came of that was a little caprice I’m actually quite proud of and ended up finishing before the October Variations, which I’m still working on. I was back to that comfortable head space of being open enough to let ideas in and to let them stay until I had exhausted my use for them. In this case, I was too attached to this idea – a lush, descending campanella line – to let it go and I found an economical use for it outside of its intended context.
Another thing that helped me get through this brief block was to go back and listen to more music. Simple, I know, but I was reminded of an interview I once came across of composer Nico Muhly in which he talks about his training. His teacher, Christopher Rouse, always emphasized the importance of going back to listen/study established repertoire for the purpose of finding both inspiration and possible solutions to the same problems that the student is trying to get through in their own piece. For example, if you want to know how to write variations on a short motif rather than a theme (as I was), look at Beethoven’s Fifth and see what’s possible.
Of course, I emphasize the importance of being open in this post, but one has to also find a way to balance this with a critical filter on anything that comes out. If this post has been at all helpful to the composer that also struggles with the perennial ‘be open, but not too open’ problem, here’s an unhelpful little paradox that I stumbled across on the web:
“If you’re not making mistakes then you’re doing something wrong. Which means you’re making a mistake. Which means you’re fine. I don’t know.”