Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Composition and Procrastination

Another thing Steve Reich touched on in that interview I talked about the other day was the immense difficulty of starting a piece. He said something like "getting the piece started, that's the hard part". And so it is, followed by getting the piece finished! I am reminded of the immortal comment by the journalist Gene Fowler who said, “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Yep.

I just managed to start a new piece, something I have been trying to do for over a month now. But this reminds me a bit of that other quote, from Mark Twain, I believe, to the effect that "Quitting smoking is easy, I've done it dozens of times." This piece is one that I started writing about thirty years ago. As is the case for quite a few of my pieces, the inspiration was an eerie landscape on Vancouver Island. One winter's day I was struck by the long lines of light falling across the wooded Sooke Hills to the west of Victoria. I made a fragmentary start to a piece, but it never got anywhere. Then, about six or seven years ago, I recalled it and made a fresh start. This got a lot further, about ten pages, but finally ran out of gas. Then yesterday I made my third attempt. This time I have a structural plan in mind that I think will help me finally get this one finished!

But what I want to share today is characteristic or typical ways composers (and other creative people) find to put off working or starting to work. These ways often show a remarkable amount of creativity that would be far better spent just working on the piece! Still, human nature...

So here are some of the things that can delay actually starting a new piece:

  • I still have to rewrite that passage in the last piece before I can start a new one
  • I just can't think of what sort of instrumental ensemble I need
  • The phone rang
  • Just let me finish reading the Internet and I will get right to it
  • I'm hungry
  • I can't find my favorite pen/pencil/notebook
  • Need to post on my blog
  • I can't start anything new until I update my software/operating system
  • Email!
  • I'm thirsty
  • The phone rang
  • I have to practice guitar
  • My coffee's cold
  • Existential angst
  • Text message
  • I'm not sure how the middle bit should go
  • The phone rang
And so on. UPDATE: Just think, if Joseph Haydn had been in the kind of interrupt-driven environment we have today with telephones, text messages, emails and so on, he might have written twenty or twenty five symphonies instead of the one hundred and six he actually wrote.

I would write a more substantial blog post this morning but, y'know, I really need to get on with that new piece...

As an envoi, let's listen to a piece recommended by a commentator, the Suite No. 5 by Antoine Forqueray played by the Kuijken brothers & Gustav Leonhardt. There are seven clips:


Jeph said...

Great post, perfect timing! I am procrastinating so hard right now, but only because several other un-fun life projects are taking priority. It's like one of those dreams where you're trying to drive a car from the back seat. Just...can't...reach....

I read somewhere that procrastinating (within reason) is not necessarily bad. It's a sort of warm-up for the brain, while you try to achieve the mental state you need to work. Organization projects, cleaning, stuff like that can be beneficial to channel nervous energy and quiet the mind. Of course, you do have to get down to it sometime, sheer denial is the worst form of procrastination and can get you in plenty of trouble.

Bryan Townsend said...

I guess I put off writing that post until just the right moment...