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.