Means, ends, and “the law of the gift:” What should I write, how should I write it and…why am I doing this?


by Sarah Perske

After reading a bunch of articles about the writing process in connection with my writing center job this year, I was inspired to embark on a yearlong obsessive inquiry into the composing process. I searched for language to demystify the compositional thought process, tested different working methods, and tried to develop personal solutions to the age-old problems of procrastination, “composer’s block,” and indecisiveness.

When I discussed some of these explorations with my colleagues a few weeks ago, Stephen Bailey made the comment that for him, the question of “what” to write is more important than “how” to go about it, and that thinking too much about the “how” without enough attention to the “what” yields poor musical results. In other words, as Stephen pointed out more recently, “the process is usually less important than the result.” I agreed with him – and sent Nathan Cornelius into fits of convulsive laughter – by remarking that sometimes the “what” is the “how” more than the “how” is the “how.” Chaya Czernowin states the same idea in more elegant terms when she writes that “every separation between means or technique on the one hand and expression or concept or idea on the other is totally false.”[1] Czernowin explains that different ends demand different means. As she humorously puts it, one composer may conceive of his/her music as “a circus of freak creatures” while another conceives of his/her music as “a garden,” and it’s important to realize that “a circus of freak creatures will lead to very different techniques than a garden.”[2] In other words, the “what” must determine the “how,” and not the reverse.

I’m beginning to think my extensive search for answers to the “how” of music composition was partly motivated by subconscious unwillingness to confront the “what.” It isn’t difficult to find something to say musically, but sometimes it can be difficult for me to determine whether what I said is really what I meant, and whether the means I chose to communicate a particular idea were really the most effective means. Did I really feel a strong commitment to this or that harmonic language when I chose it? Does my choice to write this particular kind of music come from a place of authenticity?[3] Am I communicating something that I truly believe in? Or am I just rehashing the languages of composers I like, practicing techniques my mentors said I should get acquainted with, and filling pages with notes because I have a deadline?

At the risk of making Nathan laugh again, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if the “how” is dependent on the “what,” the “what” is dependent on the “why.” If I have trouble discovering the “what,” or if I have any doubt about whether what I’m saying musically is really what I mean, the reason could be that I have failed to come to grips with the “why.” As composers, we’re motivated by a variety of “whys;” sometimes the “why” is that we have an opportunity to write for a particular performer, or that our deadline is next Thursday. Sometimes the “why” is that we want to write something as good as the piece our colleague so-and-so wrote last quarter. These kinds of “whys” are often the most immediately compelling, but I would argue that they are unlikely to produce satisfying, believable results unless they are accompanied by a deeper “why.”

The deeper “why” is slightly different for each of us, but it always has its origins in the idea that writing music is an act of communication. We write music because we have something to say to a human “other,” and that something needs to be more than just “look at me, I’m writing good music.” If my compositional choices are excessively influenced by trying to be “as good as so-and-so,” or by worrying about how others perceive me, the process is miserable and the product is unsatisfying. If, on the other hand, I compose with the feeling that I am secretly wrapping a present to surprise and delight a beloved friend, the process is fun and the product is something I can be proud of.

This reminds me of something violinist Danica Smith once told me: that the deepest truths of any discipline are reflections of universal truth. Ceasing to be “self-oriented” and becoming “other-oriented” is a necessary part of becoming a better person; for me, at least, it’s also an essential part of becoming a better composer. I’m convinced that the creation of good music demands that an individual composer reach his/her full human potential through what the Polish philosopher and theologian Karol Wojtyla called “the law of the gift,” the necessity of making a gift of oneself to others.[4] For these reasons, discovering the “what” and the “how” of music composition is more than a step in artistic or intellectual growth. Writing music must be, by its very nature, an action or series of actions oriented toward affirming the intrinsic value of human life – other’s lives as well as one’s own.


[1] Chaya Czernowin, “Teaching that which is Not Yet There” (Stanford Version), Contemporary Music Review 31, no. 4 (August 2012): 285.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Czernowin also has interesting things to say about authenticity – I hope to cover this in another post.

[4] Better known today as Saint Pope John Paul II. To the best of my knowledge, Wojtyla’s ideas about “the law of the gift” derive from lectures he gave as a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin in the 1950s, though these ideas were further developed in some of his post-election writings as John Paul II. See George Weigel, Witness to Hope: the Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999),136-37.

2 thoughts on “Means, ends, and “the law of the gift:” What should I write, how should I write it and…why am I doing this?

  1. Pingback: Sometimes the Who Can Be the What: Performers, Composers, and Audiences Revisited | deformingprisms

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