Why Do You Compose?” a response to Rob Deemer

Rob Deemer, a com­poser and con­duc­tor, recently posed this ques­tion on New Music Box, “Why do you com­pose?” That’s a pointed way of ask­ing some ques­tions I’ve con­sid­ered for a long time, and the answers can delve deep into one’s own musi­cal philosophy.

Mr. Deemer nar­rows his query with some qualifications:

…when I first posed this ques­tion to most of the com­posers, usu­ally they would begin talk­ing about the first time they dis­cov­ered com­posing before I had them go back and answer the orig­i­nal ques­tion. I thought this was a fluke until the fifth or sixth time it hap­pened in a row, after which I had to spec­ify “Why do you com­pose¬†now?” and men­tion that I’d fol­low up with the “dis­cov­ery” ques­tion. I have found it inter­est­ing that so many of us equate “why we com­pose” with “why we started com­pos­ing,” and hope that once this project is com­plete we can all have a clearer pic­ture as to how and why com­posers get started (and obliquely, how to intro­duce com­po­si­tion to younger stu­dents effectively).

Inter­est­ing ques­tions! I think many com­posers and many cre­ative peo­ple can relate. There’s that ini­tial itch to be cre­ative, spurred by some feel­ing or expe­ri­ence of the aes­thetic. For me, per­son­ally, I wanted to take up com­po­si­tion seri­ously when I heard Beethoven; I’ve always answered with, “The way Beethoven made me feel with his Moon­light Sonata, I wanted to do that for oth­ers.” This devel­op­ment gen­er­ally leads to some style imi­ta­tion, and is the why behind get­ting started. I must add that for me, my musi­cal incli­na­tions were long incu­bated by a love of pop music, espe­cially The Bea­t­les. I also wanted to imi­tate them.

But hav­ing first expe­ri­ence Beethoven at the age of 13, I began my piano stud­ies in earnest, and broad­ened my musi­cal hori­zons. I wanted to make oth­ers feel the way music made ME feel.

So that’s the¬†why. But as Mr. Deemer asks, “why do you com­pose NOW?” There must be another step beyond–not why did you get started with com­pos­ing, but why do you keep at it?

I have become less con­cerned with influ­enc­ing your feel­ings and more con­cerned with express­ing my own. I won­der: Does this work the same way? Or in dif­fer­ent ways?

Feel­ings, of course, are both per­sonal and uni­ver­sal. We all feel sad­ness, ela­tion, depres­sion, or love (etc.) from time to time. The “big terms” are uni­ver­sal, but our own expe­ri­ence is quite per­sonal. Two peo­ple may feel sad, but in the same way? This might help explain how Beethoven’s (or any composer’s) expres­sion of feel­ing can be so per­sonal and uni­ver­sal at the same time.

What does a com­poser do, then? I think you grant priv­i­lege to the per­sonal and hope it appeals to the uni­ver­sal. This is the reverse of why I started com­pos­ing. If music made me feel sad, then I wanted to write sad music. In time, it is hoped, a com­poser will tran­si­tion to a spe­cific, per­sonal sad­ness (or other emotion).

I’ve seen much less “error” (for lack of a bet­ter word) when a com­poser speaks in per­sonal musi­cal terms. On the other hand, when a com­poser shoots for the uni­ver­sal, fre­quently he (or she) says noth­ing spe­cific, but only general.

So, Mr. Deemer’s ques­tion, “Why do you com­pose now?” is very much worth con­sid­er­ing. The rea­son I got into com­pos­ing still exists, but my per­spec­tive on that rea­son has evolved. I’m less con­cerned with influ­enc­ing your feel­ings, and more con­cerned with express­ing my own.

It is worth the time for a com­poser to con­sider where he (or she) is on this spectrum.

About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.