Every time I put pencil to paper I am making a statement. It’s not what I produce that is the statement; is it the act of composing which makes the statement. Each day when I begin to work, I am saying to myself, and the whole universe by proxy, that what I am doing matters. Music, emotions, stories, ideas – they all matter. It is also a statement of hope. Hope for a future performance, and hope for an audience that will be affected and see the things that matter from a different perspective.
Composing is always an investment in the future. I am writing now, but the fulfillment of the piece is down the road. The Bible defines faith as having confidence in what is unseen (Hebrews 11:1, paraphrased.) While there is a difference between spiritual faith and the faith it takes to be a composer, this definition applies to my work. Every time I write a piece, I am declaring a conviction that my work about the things that matter deserves to be heard and a strong hope that someday it will be brought to life. If that conviction and that hope aren’t there, why compose? If the things that matter don’t matter, why write about them? If there is no hope for a culminating performance, why even start?
Performances are the most tenuous part of this process and are not guaranteed. Even if one is scheduled, something can derail that plan. Like a pandemic, for example. This pandemic has canceled innumerable concerts across the globe, including several performances of my colleagues’ works. I didn’t have anything definitively scheduled, but ensembles I had sent scores to for consideration had to postpone performances before they could make decisions about my pieces. I just received my first official commission. Will the piece be performed this coming December? The following year? We don’t know yet; we must wait and see what the progress is concerning governmental regulations regarding social distancing.
It is hard to compose amidst a pandemic. Facing illness and death on a large scale causes us to question what really matters. Having so many things cancelled now, and not knowing the future, makes us wonder when, or if, things will ever get back to normal. Some people may find the situation too traumatic to compose. I get that. Individuals need to practice self-care, and some may choose to take a break from composing. (An excellent article on this can be found here.)
But on a philosophical level, composing is more important than ever. What is happening right now matters and deserves to be communicated in music. We need hope more than ever that opportunities for performance will return. Perhaps our composing will change. Maybe we will now write more pieces which we can perform ourselves. Maybe we will write for smaller groups that can rehearse more easily and livestream performances. Maybe some will explore further use of electronic music. Perhaps some will continue to write for large groups in defiance of this virus, looking forward to the day when they will get back together for rehearsals and performances.
What needs to be said? Do the stories of those suffering need to be told? Does the angst of the time need to be expressed? Do we need reminders of beauty and love? Can we express joy about the positive changes in the environment taking place as we stop production for a while? Write it. Declare that it matters. This is a momentous time, and the world deserves a musical record of it. Do we know when the performances of these new pieces will take place? No. Some may be able to happen quickly, others may need to wait. But it doesn’t matter. Write in expectation. Write with hope. Deposit art in the account of the future. Tell the world, both performers and listeners, that when they are ready, we and our pieces will be there waiting for them.