More Will Come
In July 2016, Choral Arts Initiative premiered a secular requiem I composed for them. A few weeks later, they recorded it for their first album. That piece, How to Go On, is the longest, most significant, most personally meaningful piece I’ve written. I’m really proud of how it turned out. It had been in the works for years, and now it’s done; the composing process is done, the premiere is done, and the recording has officially been released.
This terrifies me.
Nearly every time I finish a piece and sit down to start a new one, I worry that a) I’ll have forgotten how to compose, or b) nothing will ever be as good as the piece I just completed. Now that How to Go On is done, I’m scared that maybe it was my one good idea for a long choral work. I’m scared I’ll never write anything else that resonates so strongly with the work I value and the kind of music I’d like to be writing.
I’ve been collecting the texts for How to Go On over the last four years; I've been dreaming of writing a secular requiem for closer to a decade. I’m scared I should have waited until later in my career to write this particular piece. Now that it’s over, I’ll never have the chance to write it again.
In some ways, I should want to feel this way about every piece I finish and every concert I give. I should feel that the work I've recently completed is my best work. If I didn’t fall in love with each new project, maybe I'd stop composing altogether.
In the moment, though, my panic feels completely real. It feels a little like the end of a romantic relationship, thinking: What if that was it? What if that person was my one chance, and now that it's over, I'll never love anyone or anything as much as them?
In years of navigating this feeling (in relationships, in music) I've learned that whatever comes after the completion of a major project has to be different. Not only do I have to let go of the work I've already done—to accept that maybe it was the best I'll ever do, but I have to move forward anyway. If there’s any hope of writing something better, that next piece has to explore new and different ideas. It has to push forward. This might be uncomfortable, but if I'm not willing to stretch myself, I risk creating watered-down iterations of the same project over and over again, or—even worse—halting the act of creation altogether. I have to risk failing. I have to put what I've done behind us, look forward to whatever’s next, and change.
It’s not up to us to define our “best work.” We may not even be the best people to accurately judge what, out of all the work we've created, is truly our “best.” Others may find emotional resonance in a project that feels, to us, like a throw-away piece or an underrehearsed performance. I wrote one of my most-frequently programmed choral pieces in under a week and feel pretty lukewarm about it. Luckily it’s not up to me to control what others find to love about my work.
If I show up to the process—sitting at the piano (and then the computer) to compose on a fairly regular basis—I remember how to write. It's always there when I need it. It might not feel like that on a particularly awful day, but the music and the joy do return.
After a life-changing project, maybe the work I do next won’t be feel as much like the "most," the "biggest," the "best," as what’s come before. But there’s always more, and different, work to do.
I’ve stashed away a poem by Barbara Crooker to set in the near future as a round, and I find her text comforting whenever I’m concerned that I won’t write, or write successfully, again:
Work: fill and be emptied
Be filled and empty.
The well is never dry.
Our job, as musicians and artists, is to empty ourselves of the best work we can possibly create at this exact moment in time. Our job isn’t determining what might be labeled by others as our best work; it’s doing the work that we’re compelled to do as well as we possibly can, then letting go of that work when it's done.
After a big performance is over, we rest. We accept that, in a way, we’re empty; we’ve given everything we can. We recognize this, we rest, and then the well fills again.
. . . . .
Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring 2017.
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