The Weird Obsession Phase: shortcut or obstacle for young composers?

Recently in a conversation with a composer some years my junior, I was fascinated to recognize a younger version of me: utterly bored with familiar sounds and positive that their unique ideas around some musical niche or theoretical quirk will pave their way to genius status and shape the future of Western classical music. For me, this Weird Obsession Phase, as I’ve decided to call it, began with an excessive enthusiasm for Elliott Carter’s method of combining minor thirds and tritones to create all-interval tetrachords, and ended in several pieces of music and a slightly fanatical paper with terrifying color-coded charts, the substance of which is summarized in the meme above. As I listened to Younger Version of Me expounded upon their devotion to a similar obsession, I began to wonder if this Weird Obsession Phase, awkward though it may be, is a necessary rite of passage for every young composer, a vital part of the growing pains that eventually lead us to a more grounded, well-informed, and individual artistic identity. When I reflect on my own Weird Obsession Phase, I can identify at least three positive outcomes that proved essential in my development:

I became a post-tonal theory badass overnight.
My Weird Obsession was the key that unlocked music theory for me. Given the sad and tormented history of my freshman and sophomore theory classes, I never imagined I’d walk out of an advanced theory class with an A…but that’s exactly what happened a few months after the onset of my Weird Obsession. I began devoting numerous hours of my personal time to messing with my crackpot all-interval tetrachord ideas, and this resulted in two incredibly useful skills: I developed a very strong “mental piano” that could be adapted to any audiation or mentalization exercise, and I become completely secure with the ins and outs of integer notation, pitch class sets, and tone rows before I ever set foot in my first post-tonal theory class.

I got better at analyzing what I was writing.
Creating nerdy, overly-complicated theoretical frameworks for composition – if somewhat naïve in its aims and imagined scope – was like a shot of growth hormone for my budding composer brain. Those crazy color-coded graphs, for all their retrospective silliness, trained me to be more self-evaluative and take a step back every so often to analyze what I was writing in terms of the theory that had sparked my compositional decisions. This in turn taught me to adapt my analytical approach to the aims of the particular piece I was working on, as I found myself often departing from my initial theoretical framework during the composing process to incorporate other kinds of musical ideas…which brings me to my third point…

I learned to balance theoretical ideas with following my intuitive musical sense.
Happily for me, my all-interval tetrachord obsession was grounded in a liking for the actual sonorities, and not just their theoretical coolness. That being the case, whenever I found the pre-compositional map I had created to be in conflict with where my ear intuitively wanted a melodic line or harmonic progression to go, I felt free to experiment with those intuitive options rather than remain rigidly within the bounds of my pre-compositional work. I found real joy in this push-and-pull between my theoretical frameworks and my musical intuition, and embracing that tension significantly revved up my maturation as a savvy musical decision-maker.

What about the drawbacks?
Though it certainly increased my overall social awkwardness score by a good many points, my Weird Obsession Phase was an incredibly valuable shortcut to greater musical competence and compositional maturity. That said, I feel there are two significant pitfalls to the Weird Obsession Phase that young composers should watch out for, even as they embrace the useful aspects of this particular form of nerdom:

Rigid adherence may stand in the way of further learning.
One student composer I knew in my undergrad days was so enthralled with their Weird Obsession that they refused to try other compositional techniques or even incorporate the feedback their teachers offered to help them develop versatility and technical prowess. If your Weird Obsession is preventing you from exploring new territory and developing a variety of skills, then it’s no longer serving you. Instead, it threatens to stifle your creativity and impede your development. I think most of us have the ability to recognize when our Obsession is no longer serving us, and will move on accordingly. So, by all means enjoy the adrenalin ride of your Weird Obsession while it lasts, but be willing to allow other interests and even short-term practical goals like meeting a deadline or learning a new skill to organically edge it out of the way.

If it starts to define your creative identity, a crisis may follow.
Around the same time as my own Weird Obsession, I knew another young composer with an equally intense Weird Obsession who followed said obsession all the way to an expensive overseas degree program that catered to devotees…only to become profoundly bored with the obsession to the point of choosing to abandon the writing of concert music altogether. I want to honor this person’s journey and point out that this was probably exactly what needed to happen to launch them into a musical career that will bring them more fulfillment. However, it strikes me that some drama could have been avoided if their Weird Obsession hadn’t been quite so central to their creative identity. Even at the height of my own all-interval tetrachord obsession, I managed to recall that the joy I found in musical experimentation and my more adaptable and run-of-the-mill talents (e.g., a strong melodic sense) were the real guiding lights of my creative identity. For this reason, my caution to young composers is to realize that your Weird Obsession is what you’re into right now, and NOT who you are as a creative artist. Your potential as a creative person always transcends the bounds of whatever you are creating right now!

Conclusions
We could all do with a Weird Obsession Phase, or perhaps even several, so long as they’re tempered by a good dose of self-awareness and willingness to flex as new creative needs and interests enter our lives. The real value of our Weird Obsessions, however enthralling we may find them in themselves, is in their ability to provide us with a fun and effective path to continuous discovery and personal development.