In the early 1970s, the composer György Kurtág found himself blocked. His large song cycle, The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza, which some had heralded as a milestone in the history of Hungarian music, was five years behind him, and he was having trouble writing something that could be considered a proper follow-up. At the suggestion of a friend of his—a piano teacher, Kurtág began composing some short piano pieces for her young students. Relieved at not feeling pressured to compose a masterpiece, he found himself enjoying the process. And he also found himself unblocked.
Though I’ve never had composer’s block, my series of Albumleaves has been and still is—despite my having to prioritize bigger projects lately—a refreshing outlet for low-stakes composition. When composing an Albumleaf, I don’t worry about being original: to paraphrase Brahms, any jackass can hear that many of them are derivative. I don’t worry about a piece being “just right”: it’s enough for me that an Albumleaf be momentarily effective—they don’t all need to be equally good. I don’t worry about pleasing this or that audience: I find tonality, atonality, minimalism, and jazz all interesting, and low-stakes composition lets me engage more intensely with these styles and techniques than even attentive listening does. And I don’t worry about being considered a dilettante, or lacking a “musical center” (as one reviewer put it): such criticism gives up a discussion of specific music for a discussion of generalized aesthetic values; talking aesthetics is wonderful, but let’s not pretend we’re making a substantial musical criticism when, noting the composer’s stylistic variety, we call a piece of music amateurish.
When you worry too much, you choke up, and you stop what you’re doing. And it’s critically important that any artist keep making art, no matter what. While we’ve all had the experience of ideas coming to us unbidden when taking a walk or a shower or whatever, nothing readies the imagination for ideas better than actually sitting down with pen and paper and getting to the work of sniffing around for them and trying them out and developing them or putting them aside. The more sitting down to work becomes an anxiety-laden encounter with the pursuit of Originality, Perfection, Audience, or My Musical Center, the more likely you’ll find reasons not to get to work; you’ll write less music, and many perfectly decent ideas—not to mention entire compositions—will have flowed away unnoticed.
And having an outlet for low-stakes composition makes high-stakes composition more enjoyable. Working over the notes, polishing and perfecting them over the course of a long period of time with the intention of saying something fresh, getting things “just right,” pleasing your likely audience, and creating something that complements your other works becomes a refreshing change of pace; the quick and dirty low-stakes work is left behind for a more leisurely process where you feel more in control of your material. High-stakes composition feels like a privilege.
In Kurtág’s case, he began publishing his low-stakes work, which now amounts to eight volumes of so-called Játékok (“Games”); and he often mines the Játékok for material for his more serious concert pieces for professionals—yet another potential benefit to low-stakes composition. It may even be that for its best practitioners the distinction between low-stakes and high-stakes composition gets dissolved into a virtuous swirl of steady music making. But for the rest of us, observing the difference is a fruitful way to keep the music going.
R. David Salvage’s Albumleaves are featured on LOCK AND KEY (Navona 5881). He is Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.