Oscar Wilde considered that life itself could be a work of art but, as he acknowledged in De Profundis, he put a little too much of his genius into his life. His art, in consequence, suffered.
In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Benjamin Britten, he describes how a lady in the composer’s entourage (I forget who) protected Britten from some of the petty squabbles amongst the musicians with whom he worked. She saw how they could upset him, affecting his ability work.
Both stories came to mind as I pondered how a composer can create the correct environment for his or her work. Composing can be a lonely, stressful and even soul-destroying pursuit, except, I would argue, in those moments one feels ‘flow’—absolute connectivity to the task in hand. This is the state where one forgets time, where to remember that it is lunchtime is to curse the necessity of eating.
Some composers are lucky to feel this in any situation—composing is such an all-consuming passion that there is simply nothing that will distract them. If this is you, I am very jealous.
I find distractions incredibly off-putting. For a short period a few years ago I lived nomadically. I had a romantic idea that I could compose whilst living a life on the road. It was absurd. Even though I tried to stay in each place for at least a few months, the upheaval of having to find new accommodation, not to mention the attractions of some of the more exotic locations in which I found myself, made it impossible to work.
The solution to my productivity crisis has been to settle down. Living in one place, especially a relatively ordinary place, has helped me to prioritise the things that are important. I’ve whittled down my life to the point that there are few daily distractions. In a sense, in the absence of more exciting pursuits, composition has become the distraction again.
Domestic calm has also allowed me better to organise my time. Routine has to be the most powerful weapon in the armoury of any artist. I find it really important to find time every day (or at least every week day) to pursue my composing and to protect that time as if my life depends on it. Especially one has to accept that you will not use all of that time wisely. Sometimes I spend two hours making no progress at all, but that time doing nothing is still part of the process. It must also be protected. This can be hard when there are million other (usually better paid) things to be doing.
I also find that it is useful to have less ambitious, fun composing projects. When I don’t feel especially inspired, or if no-one has actually asked me to write anything, I will knock out a fun educational arrangement or composition. This exercises the composing brain and gives the feeling that one is still doing something worthwhile. There is nothing worse than feeling the creative constipation that comes from attempting to write ‘art’ music. The constant battles with one’s sense of worth, comparing oneself to composers that you don’t have a hope of matching. It’s important sometimes that we reconnect to the simple joy of composing without guilt, and not being ashamed of throwaway results.