Composing While Living

April Fool’s Day 2012 was no joke for me: it was a serious time to relax, my first respite after two premieres and symphonic tours in the preceding months.  The night before, I’d returned to California from the New York premiere of “Mass Transmission,” with all the insanity that comes with an orchestral tour.  And just a month earlier, I’d been touring with the Chicago Symphony for the premiere of “Alternative Energy.” By the time the first of April dawned — marking the end of my crazy period — I was ready to get back to writing music.

So how does a composer stay focused on what counts most — composing — amidst the endless ‘non-composing’ demands of a career?  This is something encountered by everyone in any line of work: there’s always that ever-expanding list that draws energy from the main focus.

For me, the category of ‘non-composing’ includes performing, curating, and administration.  Performing can range from playing live electronica with orchestras to DJing in clubs; curating extends from programming new-music at the Chicago Symphony to designing classical/club Mercury Soul events; and administration is just about anything involving that cursed digital-age sprite, email.  There’s a lot of that, especially related to the managing of my catalogue of music (even when primarily handled by a music distributor).

I consider these non-composing activities essential to my compositional life, but there’s no getting around the creation of new work.  That’s the most important thing, and I make sure it receives at least half of my time.  My methods are evolving with my life, but a few tricks continue to help me compose:

Write first. The morning dawns, and my creativity enters prime time.  That’s when my mind is the freshest, when the California heat hasn’t yet dissipated the morning coolness (and with it, my motivation), and when the caffeine trajectory is on its way up.  Some people do the reverse of this, such as my CSO colleague Anna Clyne: she writes all night long.  Either way, one needs to reserve one’s magic time for writing.

Resist digital life. My friend and collaborator Anne Patterson, a director/designer who works with me on Mercury Soul, told me that she resists the urge to check email first thing in the morning — and paints instead.  That’s a great plan if you’re a monk, but not so easy for the rest of us — especially those of us out West, where the world wakes up three hours later than New York (where my management and my music distributor need answers before lunchtime).  But that advice ranks as some of the best I’ve ever received.  Email, Twitter, and Facebook are sirens of the digital age: one hears their call, opens a web browser for a quickie, and suddenly gets pulled into the vortex.  So, strap yourself to the mast!

• If possible, leave home. Having a detached studio cottage is one of the great joys in my life.  Perhaps it relates to some man-cave urge to wall oneself off, survivalist style, with weapons and food (in my case, electronic instruments and liquor).  My daily commute, but a few steps through the backyard, nonetheless gives me the sensation of ‘going to work,’ and there is valuable productivity resulting from that.  Even city-folk can have a separate space, since studio-offices can be found at a reasonable expense.  My friend Lorraine Sanders has enough square footage in her two-bedroom condo to hole-up in a corner with a laptop (she’s a writer), but she chooses to go to the San Francisco Writers Grotto because it is ultimately more productive.

• Schedule like a German. We may be artists, but we need to run our creative lives like a gulag — or deadlines get missed.  I carefully arrange my composing schedule so that I overlap projects as little as possible.  Ideally, that means reserving the mornings for composing the latest piece, while leaving the afternoons for orchestrating another piece in its final stages.

• Lean to say No. It’s hard but necessary.  Creating engaging new work takes time, but we all get tempted to accept every project (this includes non-composing activities).   Artists need work more than most everyone else, since we are not exactly receiving government stimulus funds. But for my sanity, and the quality of my work, I try to differentiate between a ‘hefty but reasonable’ amount of work and an ‘insane life-killing’ number of projects.

As life changes, so do the best-laid plans — and with two young children and composer-in-residency in Chicago, I constantly adapt.  For example, I tried composing on the road. That, however, didn’t work so well, so for now my composing and family demands neatly overlap (for both, I need to be home a reasonable amount).  In a few years I may have a different list of composing guidelines, but for right now these are the ones I follow.  Now get back to work!