A composer's education

7 minute read
The education of a composer


The other day Dan Rottenberg asked me to set down my insights about the creative process, as a musician who now spends most his time composing. I tend to distrust what a composer says about his own creative process. Ever since I heard Vincent Persichetti describe his preferred environment as one surrounded by a great deal of noise (such as driving in traffic with the fan turned up), I’ve wondered whether anyone really wants to know how a composer does his work.

I’m especially uneasy about describing my own creative process, because it sounds pretentious to me. It makes me sound as if I know what I'm doing. That said, I’ll venture a few ideas.

The first thing you need to know about my composing is how it came about. My childhood in Cleveland was unstructured; my parents seemed unable to cope with children past the moment of childbirth. I was left unsupervised for a great deal of my days from earliest times. Even though I showed promise in music from age two, I wasn’t given lessons until I was 11.

But instruments were all over the house. My father, a violinmaker, and my mother, a pianist, made sure we had a wide variety of musical instruments to play with. I had access to the piano and the violin, to a guitar, flute, piccolo, bells and a drum. Since I didn't learn to read music until I was seven, I spent a great deal of time improvising on one instrument or another. I also spent great effort trying to write music without knowing how.

And that is the hallmark of a great deal of my life, even now: I spend great effort trying to do things I don't really know how to.

‘Unremitting cruelty’

But I discovered joy and comfort in the music and was driven to play and to attempt to write music down. When I finally began studying the cello after my family had moved to Indianapolis, I discovered that I had grown resistant to instruction. Fortunately, my second teacher, Raymond Brandes, was a forceful personality. He overcame my resistance and did a great deal for me, personally and musically.

I still keep in touch with him. Ray's in his 80s now and still teaches. When I once asked him his secret for such effective instruction, he replied, "Unremitting cruelty." Yet what I sensed was not cruelty but determination to give me the basic ability to play the cello. Ray succeeded beautifully, even if my lessons lasted all afternoon.

The “Grail Castle” experience

At a time when I would have had to choose to study composition formally, I became sidetracked by what the Jungian psychologists call the “Grail Castle” experience— a powerful moment that can occur in one's teens and perhaps again later in life. Mine took place when I was 18, after I had written a piece of no worth for solo piano as an encore for my first girlfriend. True to form, this early experience distracted me totally. I had no idea what it was about: Had I been given a great spiritual gift that I was supposed to hold onto through some sort of correct behavior?

To understand my reaction, you must look once again into my family heritage— Dianetics, the study of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, the UFO craze of the ’50s, and the spiritual brotherhood Subud. The last, through one of those colossal coincidences, my parents had begun the same day I had experienced my "moment of peace."

Avoiding the real world

So I spent the next 30 years of my life trying to capture that experience again as a member of Subud, doing spiritual exercises and trying to live in harmony with the world and my inner self. In my case, this meant that I maintained rather limited contact with the "real world": It was all I could do to study the cello and become a professional musician. The rest of the time I ran from the world, just like my parents, looking for some inner reality.

During these years I wrote a fair number of works of very limited worth for religious services and continued to improvise for my own comfort. I had no process at that time but learned early that I couldn't hear my way across even one line of music on paper. I would start out with an idea, and my powers were so undeveloped that I would lose track of it within three measures. I worked hard to improve my abilities to hear what I was writing, with some success.

The healthiest part of a messy life

By the '90s I was digging out from the mess I had managed to make of most of my personal life, fed by my obsession with my inner quest and my neglect of my relationship with my wife (which led to our divorce); my increasing bewilderment at and distrust of the real world I had systematically ignored or run from; and finally the collapse of my quest and the beginnings of a new and (I hoped) more realistic life. Through all of this, my musical life remained the one strong and reasonably healthy part of me.

I turned to a psychologist, Pat Fenske, to help me make sense of my life, and a suggestion from her as we talked about music rang a bell: to make use of my improvising as the basis for writing my music. It worked, and I was able to begin writing the larger chamber works that have become my specialty. I sit down with a tape recorder and let it record while I play whatever comes to mind, then work with that raw material to organize into more coherent music. This takes advantage of my most deeply rooted impulses and strengths.

With a little help from my dreams

I should mention briefly one other aspect of my adventures as a composer: Once I began writing seriously I had several dreams that were powerful aids. In one dream I was singing something lovely enough but without much dramatic impact, and my audience was leaving, so I transformed my song into something which held the attention better. Another time I dreamed that "if I didn't eat so much, I would hear the music better." I have no doubt of this but am having a seriously difficult time correcting a lifetime of bad eating behavior.

The process of creating music for me is basically one of discovery. It is exciting and joyful, though it’s scary to start in on a new piece. Sitting down and improvising is most helpful, since that comes much more naturally than anything else I can do.

Hours spent inside my own head

In almost every case I don’t use an instrument to compose after the initial improvising. I do take advantage of Finale, the computer music program, which enables me to play music back. This way I feel I can easily discard material that’s going nowhere (and there's plenty of that). But still I often just sit with blank music paper and a pencil and scribble.

More often than not, I still get in my own way. I still wrestle with a feeling of outrageous self-indulgence, because I can spend countless hours inside my own head and psyche discovering what's in there that might be "fit to print." I find myself constantly struggling with my very earliest childhood ideas of making music as a very private, intimate activity that gave me comfort and a sense of all being right with the world rather than of a more mature sharing of ideas through music. These conflicts cut into my ability to compose with a clear mind— as does my very demanding professional life spent performing (for the most part) other people's music.

After 36 years as a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Lloyd Smith retired in 2003 to devote himself to chamber music and composing.

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