This summer I spent two weeks at the St. Mary’s Summer Composition Intensive in Notre Dame, Indiana. My favorite part of the Intensive was the fact that it encouraged me to experiment with composing in ways that I hadn’t before, such as writing site specific music or electronic music. Each day, our morning would consist of a presentation from a guest composer–Michael Schelle, Kristin Kuster, or Jay Batzner. We also received demonstrations and tutorials from bassist David Murrary, who encouraged us to experiment with writing a piece for the bass. Then, each afternoon and evening we held lessons and masterclasses with each of the composers who visited us.
In retrospect, the greatest contribution that the Intensive has made to my writing process is a greater ability to be comfortable with remaining in the brainstorming stage of writing for a longer period of time than I was used to and accepting that part of the writing process as valuable, even if all of the ideas don’t become part of a finished piece. After all, we were challenged to try new ideas each day for twelve consecutive days, which I found quite uncomfortable. Usually, I’ll brainstorm a little bit in writing a piece–maybe a couple of days or so–and then decide whether or not I will devote myself to finishing that work. If there’s a section that pushes me to go back and brainstorm, I will, but I generally just “go for it,” and there can be pros and cons to that approach, just like any other method. In my lesson with Jay Batzner, one of the strategies that he encouraged me to try with a flute, viola, and harp piece that I’m writing is to “tease” out a melody that I am developing in order to see how far it could be stretched, analyze it, and then use that as a source of ideas for the development of the entire piece.
For me, the hard part of the idea of abundant brainstorming is that inevitably, I will have to throw something out. . .without actually throwing it away. In one of our masterclasses, Kristin Kuster pointed out that as composers, we too often damage our ability to take pride in our new ideas by crossing out or erasing what we have just written. I hadn’t realized that this tendency often contributes to my writer’s block–implicitly, it tells me that what I just wrote sucks or is unworthy of existence, when really, it should just be set aside for potential use later on.
Eventually, I would like to build composing into my routine in such a way where I will feel the freedom to simply create and then decide if some ideas will become a piece. I have had a tendency to reserve the mere “exercise” for classes in theory and counterpoint as if such practice is any less creative. However, just as physical exercise makes us stronger, healthier, and more efficient in our daily activities, so would practicing creative exercises daily make me a more daring composer.
Below are some musical treats from from the composers who worked with us. I enjoyed meeting these people and working with them, and for anyone who wishes to apply to the Intensive next year, I strongly encourage you to do so.