It's All Nonsense

Save for maybe Danny Elfman, Howard Shore is almost entirely responsible for my desire to become a film composer. Elfman’s scores to Tim Burton’s two Batman films and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman piqued my interest; Howard Shore’s score to the Lord of the Rings trilogy solidified it.

I’m also a huge Tolkien fan in general, but that’s besides the point.

Shore not only writes some of the most detailed, expressive scores in Hollywood, but he's also an accomplished concert composer. He conducts all of his scores, and as far as I know keeps his number of assistants and orchestrators to a minimum. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition special features only spotlights a single assistant, and Shore was writing up to six minutes of music per day!

I stumbled upon (or, more specifically, Reddited-upon) an interesting video of him, entitled A Composer’s Dream. I suggest you watch it here before reading on.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about--for lack of a better term–-the “nature of composing.” How do we get in to the right state of mind to begin writing? Should we just let it “come” to us? But what if we have a deadline? (When do we not have a deadline?) How do we pick up when we’ve left off for a significant amount of time? Should I write in a DAW, or pencil and paper, or does it matter? Should the music totally come from an emotional place, or should I try and work in some new technique in each piece?

Does the word “should” even belong in music at all?

The first thing I noticed about Mr. Shore while watching this video is that he doesn’t seem bothered by these questions, these insecurities. Because that’s what they are: internal crises caused by our inability to accept where we are in our creative development. It reminds me of a certain Ira Glass quote that's been making the Facebook rounds as of late. The only way to escape these questions is to work through it, to keep on creating. As Shore says at 01:16:

“To make music everyday, there’s a certain discipline to that. And day to day, the thing I try to do is not to look too far ahead. And in that day, if you have done your work–-you’ve expressed so many ideas, you’ve done some orchestration, you’ve worked on the film, you’ve worked on the cello concerto–-then you’ve accomplished what you’ve done that day and you’re relaxed, ready for the next day. So what I always try to do is just chip away at it. And you look back and there’s just masses of music–-there’s so much of it, you know.”

Notice that this shot reveals his work environment: Excluding the amazing house, it’s really just a desk, pencil & paper, a piano, a laptop, some basic computer speakers (read: not speaker monitors) and what appears to be a cheap M-Audio 49- or 61-key MIDI controller. My fellow Berklee composers-in-training and I are working with the same gear, if not more. I wonder what he has that we don’t…?

Apparently, great minds think alike. Ralph Waldo Emerson said nearly the exact same thing two centuries ago:

“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

The main idea here is that if one is to be a composer, one needs to be a composer. Because what are you if not the thing you spend the majority of your time being?

Since coming home to Indiana for a two-week break before the fall semester-–a definite “calm before the storm”–-I’ve slept in until noon everyday and generally done nothing. I’ve spent the majority of my time being a lazy slob, not writing, not studying, not doing anything productive. And I feel terrible because of it–-who knew?

To be a great composer, one must write every day. Not just study scores and techniques, or wistfully think about “the nature of composition.” No. Important as all of these things are, they’re only satellites to the planet. Write every day, and pretty soon your ability will match your taste.

An important point not to be overlooked is the part about relaxing, letting go, getting ready for the next day. This is something I’ve struggled with for years, and no doubt has been the leading cause of my chronic insomnia. The work you do is important, but it’s not everything. Music is inspired by life–-go and live it every once in a while.

In addition to writing music, I enjoy writing these blogs. I have a good dozen blogs that are sitting around unfinished due to a mix of perfectionism and procrastination. If one is to be a writer, one must write. And one must accept one’s writing as never perfect, always unfinished. So that’s why I’m not going to edit this. I’m going to push the Publish button…right…now.