Getting started

Tom

It has taken me some time to really get going in the new year. While I new what had to be done and when I’d have to finish it, the part where I sit down and put some new notes to paper just kept postponing itself. I wasn’t doing nothing though. I’ve written an orchestral arrangement of 7 minutes and Prayer received an adaption for both string orchestra and concert band. But somehow I couldn’t get started on writing a new piece again. And when I would start, there is always the shit terror of starting one. Starting each new piece from scratch is the hardest part for me. Thankfully, I’m not the only one suffering from this.

On the 15th of October, our guest at the weekly Composers forum at the Conservatory of Amsterdam was the American composer John Adams. Who happens to be one of my favorite composers. It was one of the best forums we’ve ever had, in my humble opinion. The way he spoke and thinks about aesthetics, his own music and his workflow was incredibly inspiring. Some quotes (which are paraphrases sometimes, and at other points sheer bulletpoints in the hurry of writing everything down):

“The idea of music not being accessible has been the strangest idea for me. Music should be understandable and accessible.”

“Composing is like being an athlete. When you’re in shape, you’re less vulnerable, less of a chance you get a block. There’s an adjustment between writing and ‘being out there’. We are really locked in a personal experience when we’re creating something. It is hard to pull back and become a human being.”

“Not being able to share your music with a larger audience seemed awfully depressing. Tonality was a wonderful organising force, I could build big structures, tension and release. Fundamental, psychological and emotional experiences that every human has.
I felt that there was something vital in minimalism, communication. Music is about sharing feelings. Many other things, but ultimately it is about feeling. It is not thaught, nobody mentions it.”

But the part that might have hit me the most was about starting a new piece.

The hardest thing is starting a piece. Every piece that I start is sheer torture. What I’ve learned is: each new piece, I have to make baby steps. I have to be willing to say: I’m a terrible composer”. I have to learn again. Beginner’s mind. Throw your ego away, forget who you are and what your problems are.

It was like I was looking in a compositional mirror (or something). Extremely recognizable words. And it sounds strange, but hearing those words from an established composer who’s written works which have been performed over and over again for the last 25-30 years is extremely reassuring. On the one hand, I can stop worrying, because the feeling you have when starting a new piece will never stop. On the other hand, even though your start sucks, there’s living proof that in the end, something beautiful will always come out. If you are willing to start all over again with each piece you write. While not repeating yourself. Challenge accepted.

These words, the concert with his new work Sheherazade.2 (which is absolutely BRILLIANT) on the 16th and what he said about software in his workflow have inspired me deeply to finally get started (for real, not just thinking about it) on my orchestral piece. With an upgraded workflow, which now involves a lot more Cubase and handwriting and a lot less Finale, I’ve come quite far already. Thank you John Adams.

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