by Nathan Cornelius
I’m writing this post fresh off my first lesson on a new piece I’m composing. I often feel some trepidation about showing a piece to my teacher for the first time, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’d like to think I’ve moved beyond the mere fear of criticism, as any artist needs to come to terms with both positive and negative feedback on their work. Besides, the very point of studying with a teacher is to see where your pieces fall short of your goals for them and then how to improve them. When my teacher points out a weakness in my work and offers advice on how to fix it, my usual emotion is one of gratitude, not fear. At the very least, I feel that I’m getting my money’s worth.
Why then am I worried about what my teacher will say of my new piece? In pondering this question further, I found it helpful to distinguish between the “soul” and the “body” of a piece of music. The soul of a piece is the idea at its very core, the thing that impelled you to create the piece in the first place. Like its DNA, it identifies this piece as unique, distinct from any other piece of music, and contains the germ of everything it could grow into. For me, the soul of a piece can take many different forms, such as a word or phrase, an image, a scientific concept, or a memory of a specific life experience. It can also be an abstract, purely musical idea that generates the entire piece. Wherever this original idea came from, I see the piece’s identity as firmly tied to it.
Of course, a human soul cannot be fully alive without a body. Similarly, the composer must work through a process of realizing his or her idea in notes so that it can have a life outside of the composer’s mind. What we call compositional technique is the skill with which a composer builds the skeleton and sinews of the piece. The specific manifestation of the piece (its “body”) can potentially be changed, either on a surface or structural level, without altering the piece’s identity (its “soul”). However, just as a person’s outward appearance may reveal or conceal his or her inner nature, a piece’s “body” may manifest its “soul” with varying degrees of clarity. The process of growth as a composer is one of learning how to construct pieces in such a way that the basic idea shines through lucidly (unless, perhaps, the composer specifically intends to obscure it).
Thus, I finally realized I’m not worried my teacher will tell me how to make the piece better by improving my execution of my idea. In human terms, this would be akin to adopting an exercise regimen, tearing down one’s body in hopes of making it stronger or more beautiful. Instead, I’m worried my teacher will find the idea itself, the “soul” of the piece, lacking, and I find this prospect disturbing. I realize I care about this idea, and I don’t want to let it go and replace it with a different “soul,” even if the “body” is superficially similar. My decisions as the composer determine whether this piece will live or die—and I earnestly want it to live. As the composer Chaya Czernowin has said, only by sensing “what is at stake” in writing a piece, what aspect of it is in danger, can you discover what is important to you as a composer.
I do believe a piece can only be as good as its original idea allows. And it may be beyond the skill of a particular composer to flesh out a suitable “body” for a given “soul.” Yet it would be absurd for composers to keep searching for better “souls” for their pieces before they start composing. If that were the case, no one could write any music until they find an idea with the potential to become The Greatest Piece of Music Ever. Just as there is no ideal, perfect human being, there is no ideal piece of music, and composers cannot sit around waiting for stronger inspiration to fall into their lap. Instead, all we can do is work with the ideas we are given, valuing each one as a unique and beautiful entity despite its shortcomings. Yet we are always dreaming, hoping, searching, and working to help it grow into the best self it can become—just as we ought to do for the human beings we care about in real life.