In addition to my work as a writer, a sound engineer and soon-to-be grad student, I am also a composer.*
I spent much of last year studying the modern orchestral repertoire, for I wanted to compose an orchestral piece. Having not much else to do after being laid off, I threw myself into an overly ambitious project to keep myself busy and sane. It was a long and painful process, and I accepted from the beginning that I was in over my head. I spent days on end studying scores, devouring the contemporary orchestral repertoire––though we can hardly call music written in the 1960s contemporary music at this point.
The composers who I spent the most time with were Gyorgy Ligeti, Krysztof Penderecki, Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Adés, Luciano Berio, Marc-Andre Dalbavie and Sofia Gubaidulina––I even spent a bit too much of my own money their scores, especially since Inter-Library Loan was out of the question. There were many other composers whose music I listened to that passed by me, either because I found little in their music interesting or because I was too exhausted and engrossed in the above composers to give them my proper attention––Toru Takemitsu and Gerard Grisey come to mind as composers whose music I enjoy greatly despite being unable to give it the time to gestate it needs. By no means consider the list above a list of my favorite composers, nor that I do not like music written by any of the other great composers not mentioned. There were some more canonized composers who I studied as well, including Mahler (everything he ever wrote), Stravinsky (the big three ballets and Les Noces, along with some of the late serial works), Ravel (La Valse and Daphnis et Chloe in particular), Debussy (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Images and La Mer), and Strauss (Metamorphosen and the Tone Poems). Not much Bartok, though: outside of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste and some of the String Quartets I don’t find much of his music particularly interesting.
If I can gather my thoughts and ideas on these pieces into a coherent form, maybe I will share some of that here.
After burning myself out composing a piece for large orchestra (triple winds, eleven brass, strings divisi a 4, etc.) with some needlessly complex textures, I whipped almost immediately back into making ambient music. I could explore the same sort of complex textures that interested me, and I could realize them without having to go through all the extra notational steps needed for orchestral music. A couple of those pieces have found their way onto Bandcamp, which I will publicize once I release a few more pieces that I feel happy with (maybe even an entire album or EP…)
The other outlet for my music has consisted of myself recording my own performances. Through high school and undergrad I played percussion, drum set and piano, mostly within the jazz idiom, while dabbling in guitar and bass. After sitting bored to tears in Zoom classes, I got back into playing guitar and started to improve my chops to the point where I could begin to compose and record myself. I even bought a couple pedals for myself (I promise I won’t become a pedal guy). Those instruments, plus actually knowing how to properly record myself, meant that I could create the music that I’ve wanted to make for years. I also told myself, “if you can’t make the music you want to make with all the knowledge, skills and equipment you already have, either get the stuff you do need, or just give up,” and since I wasn’t gonna give up any time soon, I had to push through.
I haven’t released any of these pieces publicly yet, though I have shown my family and friends. I don’t know what genre it would fit into, if any. I could write something about how my ideas for the music relate to the 1960s via Walter Benjamin’s idea of the Dialectical Image that he puts forth in his Theses on the Philosophy of History.
I set a goal for myself in 2021 to finish and release an album by the end of the year. After a while I bumped that goal up to two albums, since I had enough material in two separate genres/styles––one ambient/drone/sound collage, one jazz/rock. I very easily could still complete this goal. One of the albums is in the finalizing stages: a couple parts need to be re-recorded, a couple pieces need to be tabled for the next album, and then onto mixing and mastering. The ambient album is not nearly as done, but coming along well.
*The term “Composer” is problematic in any number of ways when you dig into it. I may write about this eventually, but for now just take that to mean “someone who writes music,” with no assumptions about the style, quality or cultural significance of that music.