Getting Unstuck

16 April 2015

Donald Francis Tovey, in his magnificent Essays in Musical Analysis, cites a riddle he often posed to his students: (I’m paraphrasing here)

Q: What is it that we wish to learn from the Great Masters, but cannot?
A: How to get out of a hole, because they never get into one.

With all due respect, Mr. Tovey’s answer seems to be deceptive and incomplete. It’s not that the Great Masters never got into holes, but we never get to see them in holes, as we only get to see their completed work with all problems solved. I have no doubt that the Great Masters struggled plenty, and that their finished pieces, which seem so effortless and inevitable, are products of hard work, rigorous attention to detail, trial and error, doubt, angst, and despair. They’ve left us very little evidence of their struggles, but that does not mean their struggles did not occur.

I confess that I often struggle with my writing, and that my inspiration often flags. I’ve recently completed two new pieces, my Saxophone Quartet No. 3 and a choral setting of Avinu Shebashamayim (Prayer for the State of Israel). Both pieces gave me trouble. Or, to put it more accurately, I gave myself trouble on both of those pieces. Recognizing that distiction is the first step to overcoming the trouble.

I remember my teacher, Giampaolo Bracali, of blessed memory, comparing composing to driving a car. When you’re lost, or at a dead end, he said, it’s probably because you made a wrong turn somewhere earlier. If you go back and retrace your route, you may get a clue as to where you went wrong, and where, perhaps, you should have gone instead.

I continue to follow Giampaolo’s excellent advice, and I find his technique useful, not only for undoing a faux pas, but also for figuring out where to go next.

It’s very rare for me to work out the entire structure of a piece in advance. Usually I make it up as I go along. One idea leads to another, and I let these ideas run free as long as possible. At a certain point — or, should I say, an uncertain point — this stops being effective, and then it’s time to take stock of what I’ve done. I’ll analyze what I have so far, and write an outline of it. Doing this can be very helpful, in many different ways. It could be that I have too much material, and that I could make a more coherent presentation doing more with less. It could be that there are aspects of how the various motives relate to each other that I have not explored. Seeing how ideas are presented the first time may give me ideas about how to develop them later on.

That’s good advice for a journey that’s already started, but what about the times when you can’t even get the engine to turn over?

When you find you can’t even begin, there’s certainly an emotional component holding you back, and that’s coming from you, not from your material.

I find that I’m highly susceptible to an affliction called “Importantitis.” I feel that if I’m working in a form others have worked in before, I’m in competition with them, and I must outdo them, or else I have failed. That’s crazy, of course, and holding onto such thoughts leads to severe self-consciousness and doubt, utter paralysis. I cannot proceed until I’ve talked myself out of the irrational fears that hamper my progress.

One way to bypass all this mishegoss is to forget about all the great masters of the past, forget about posterity, and just focus on the right now. It’s not necessary, I tell myself, that your piece lives for the ages, but it is necessary that your piece lives for the five or ten minutes of its running time. The people who create are always the people least qualified to judge the work, as they’re way too close to the work to have any perspective. So don’t judge, just create! Let all the others judge. Casablanca (1942) is a great movie, one of my favorites, and a classic if ever there was one, but no one who worked on it knew or even believed it was going to be great; they were all on board because they were under contract. Greatness is an accident as often as not. Make yourself accident-prone.