We were at a dinner party not too long ago and one of the guests, a wonderful instrumentalist, said that he wanted to get back to composing. He had started a piece years earlier and had looked at it recently, but what was holding him back were the “embarrassing” parts. He thought that if he could get rid of those, he’d have something to work with.
I know what he means. Some of my older works (and some not so older) evoke winces from me. The problem bits embarrass for one of two reasons. Sometimes they’re only partially-realized ideas, not fully in focus. But sometimes the ideas are fine, and I was unfocused, simply piling other ideas on top of them. (Generating ideas, while good in its place, is not composing.)
But there’s another kind of embarrassment that I hope never to shed. It’s the embarrassment of an idea that’s so simple that the least bit of tinkering would destroy it. This kind of embarrassment interests me.
Here’s an example: the opening to the second section of Vespers, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.” The shawm phrase, over the theorbo, is so simple as to be almost silly. As if that weren’t enough, I repeat it. It came to me like that and I wrote it down more as a placeholder, figuring I’d change it later. But then I couldn’t change it. It refused all my attempts to make it lofty, witty, or subtle. It was crude, loud, and inescapable. It was Martin Luther, it was the Reformation. The entrance of the chorale tune six bars later is that much smoother, in contrast, but frankly, I didn’t calculate that. That just happened, and I liked it, so it stayed.
It’s embarrassing, though, because it’s the kind of idea that sounds as if it could have come to anyone, and we want to be special, don’t we? Special people—the artists and geniuses that we’d like to be—reject obviousness, reject simplicity, and certainly reject the common. Don’t they? We want to be nuanced. Mostly, we want to look smart, but really, that only means acting the way our crowd acts.
It’s particularly tempting to young composers, since it’s how we behaved as adolescents—it’s life and death to adolescents—and most of us began composing around then. Soon, most of us went to college, where the coin of the realm is analysis, theory, and technical jargon. We want to impress our professors (who will usually know better) and our friends (who usually won’t).
There comes a point, though, when that struggle ceases. It can happen all at once or in stages. We realize that our nuances are muddles and our dazzles are flat. Or we realize that the person we’re trying to impress doesn’t exist. Or we simply tire of acting. All our Howevers and all our On The Other Hands are just ways of hedging our bets.
If we’re fortunate—and we keep working, and we keep our ears open—at some point something simple offers itself to us, and we say, Oh Hang It All and we write it down as it is and stop ﬁghting. And then we ﬁnd that those ideas, those embarrassing, obvious ideas, are the ones we love the best. It’s the music that’s been there all along, behind our calculations. It’s the music that identiﬁes us, the music we’ve been trying to sing since adolescence. It’s the music that says to us, Maybe you are peculiar or silly or clumsy, but this is you, like it or not. And we do like it. Finally. And we’re no longer embarrassed.