More Will Come
In July 2016, Choral Arts Initiative premiered a secular requiem I composed for them, and they recorded it a few weeks later on 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.
I realize even as I write this how silly it sounds, but to some extent, in every new work I approach, I worry that I’ll forget how to compose. Now that How to Go On is complete, I’m scared that maybe this was my one good idea for a long choral work. I’m scared that 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 that make up How to Go On for four years and dreaming of writing a secular requiem for closer to ten. I’m scared I should have waited until later in my career to write this particular piece. It’s over; I’ll never have the chance to write it again.
Of course, in some way or another, we should feel this way about every piece we finish and every concert we give. We should feel that the work we’ve recently completed is our best work. If we didn’t fall in love with each new project, maybe we’d stop performing, or conducting, or composing.
That doesn’t stop this irrational panic, though. The fear that sets in after a major work is over can feel a little like when one relationship has ended, but the prospect of another is not yet on the horizon. What if that was it? What if that person was your one chance, and now you’ll never love anyone or anything as much as you loved them?
Whatever comes after the completion of a major project has to be different. Not only do you have to let go of the work you’ve already done—to accept that maybe it was the best you’ll do, but you have to move forward anyway—but if there’s any hope of writing something better, that next thing has to explore new ideas, and it has to push forward. This might be uncomfortable, but if we’re not willing to move toward different projects, we risk creating watered-down iterations of the same project over and over again, or—even worse—we risk stopping the act of creation altogether. To some extent, we have to risk failing. We have to put what we’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 ones to accurately judge what, out of all the work we do, 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. It’s not up to us what others find to love about our work.
I’ve found that if I show up to the process— sitting at the piano (and then the computer) to compose, nearly every weekday—I remember how to write, every single time. After a life-changing project, maybe the work we do next won’t be feel as much the “most” as what’s come before: the most significant performance we’ve given, the longest piece we’ve written, the best of anything. 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.
If we’re going to continue creating after a really big project is done, we can’t wait until we’re ready to take a step in a different direction. Our job, as musicians and artists, is to empty ourselves of the best work we can create at the moment in which we’re creating it. Our job isn’t to determine what might be labeled by others as our best work; it’s to do the work that we’re compelled to do as well as we possibly can, and then to find new work that compels us.
After a big performance is over, we rest. We accept that, in a way, we’re empty, because 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.