Write Like You'll Die Tomorrow

The best advice I ever got from a composition teacher was, “Write like you will be dead tomorrow.” 

A macabre thing, no doubt, but what he meant was make sure that your score contained all the necessary stuff to inform your players and conductor on what to do to best realize your vision when you can’t be there. How short does the staccato need to be? Sul G? Field drums or concert snares? Only the writer really knows the tone they want. This poses a fascinating dilemma on how much control you want over your music. 

The easy answer is: it depends on what your medium is. If you are writing for film or games (unless the cue calls for interpretation), you pretty much have to run a tight ship. That is because you are charged with the responsibility of the sonic integrity and tone of another’s vision. Every frame matters. If you are writing for concert performance, where your music is solely featured and not a part of some larger entity, then you might be able to let go of the leash a bit and let that music grow on its own. But how do you know? How do you trust the performer’s interpretation to do your idea justice? Unless you work with the same ensemble over and over, then you don’t really know. You need to build your repertoire, but at the same time beggars can’t be choosers, so you’ll work with anyone just to see this idea swimming behind your eyes come to fruition, and your biggest fear is: what if it sucks? What if the end result is pure tepid garbage that you’ve collected on to the remains of a slain tree for the last few months, only to have critics consider it tabloid-sized toilet paper? If it sucks, is it because of you, or is it the ensemble? No… maybe it's the studio or venue. Maybe the streaming distributor compressed the files the wrong way. SOMEONE MUST BE BLAMED! 

I had another teacher from my Berklee days that used to say garbage in, garbage out. Where a song is only as good as its writer, who’s only as good as its performer, who’s only as good as its producer, who’s only as good as its marketing, and so forth. Perhaps it's our ego that thinks that it has to be a solitary element, or an entity responsible for the many glorious car crashes in our profession. What if everything is great, but it just doesn’t work? It's not impossible, and I’m sure a lot of you can examine your love-lives in this fashion. You can have the perfect writing, an A-list group, a studio that the Beatle’s farted in, a bazillion followers, and it can still go awry. Sometimes it is as simple as the details you include don’t speak in the same dialect as the performers. Maybe the performers are amazing in their particular playing style, but what you request is inconsistent to their successes. The studio might be fantastic at churning out the heaviest face-melting metal, but can’t quite get the mix of your string quartet. What if I told you, everyone is to blame? 

Everyone has a role to play, and with the benefit of the doubt, is great at the work they do. So, K.Y.P. (Know your people). If you have the esteemed luck of being able to take them out for beers or coffee, that’s all well and good. But if they are operating on the other side of the world, at least read up on them. Listen to their recordings, follow their patterns and trends, and then decide if you are going to write for them, or if they are going to play for you. A pops orchestra is not going to interpret music the same way as the philharmonic that solely gets down to dead legends. Rick Rubin might have produced some of the most successful albums of all time, but can he bring out the best in your Mongolian Throat-Singing/Didgeridoo duet? On second thought… he might. 

For those of you that hire talent strictly for the reputation, you need to ask yourself how these folks got the reputation to begin with. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one that turns everything they touch into gold. They, like many of us, heard there is gold in them thar’ hills, and was savvy enough to find a lucrative spot, and sift through less filth to find it. The gold was always there, though. Having a mindset that someone with a history of some degree of success can and will polish a turd for you, won’t necessarily work, if they can only see the turd. So know your people, see if your values align and make things happen where they can. If it doesn’t work, have a contingency plan to make it work. We can all relish in the fact that there is no end to hungry musicians with something to prove that will take on your vision. I know, because I am one. 

This actually brings it all back to the composer. When you are toiling away at your next Messiah, dig deeply into yourself, and really exploit what you value in the piece while being aware of what you don’t. This will determine if you have a graduate level thesis and analysis on your front matter or if the conductor/director will actually have to do work for a change. Show-off your musical prowess by confidently depicting that your idea is good while you hold the puppet strings, or regardless of if the ensemble makes many changes to the details. Then execute the idea. The worst thing you can possibly do is nothing. If you are still alive while your music is being premiered, then the second worst thing you can possibly do is not learn from the experience. Ask questions. Take feedback. Keep calm and write on. If you stumble upon a small degree of success but the audience and performers have a completely left-field interpretation of what you were trying to explain, then do a bit of soul searching, cash the check and try again. The third worst thing you can do is be trite with your breath of work and think the music you are on at this moment is the last thing you will ever have to say. Write like you will die tomorrow, but for Bach’s sake… keep living.

This blog entry was archived from my Facebook Page 12.29.18.

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