On Serendipity and Inventing Music

According to a Facebook post I wrote on December 9, 2012, the composer John Eaton once said, "Some composers write what they hear. Some composers write in order to hear." (I didn't cite it, and a quick Google search tuned up 0 results.)

I noticed a pattern early in my master's program that sometimes things would happen in performances of my music that I wasn't expecting but that were ten times better than I imagined. I'd been working with some really good performers who had brought things to my music pleasantly surprised me. I asked a professor something like, "Do good composers ever have happy accidents?" or "Can a composer rely on serendipity?" The answer was a swift "no." I was taken aback at the swiftness of the response because my own music had definitely surprised me.

I've thought about that exchange probably weekly for more than ten years. I don't think my professor understood what I was asking, and I don't think I really did either. Of course, as a composition teacher, you don't want your students to think they can fake their way through composing. And you don't want to give the impression that great composers didn't know exactly what they were doing. But I was thinking along the lines of chance music--music that the composer can't anticipate or hear, at least not with great detail, before the performance. I was asking if it were possible to cultivate a style of composition that would foster as many of these moments of serendipity as possible. I think it is, and I'm still in the middle of figuring it out.

I've always felt uncomfortable with the label "composer" because original music doesn't usually flow spontaneously through my mind as is the common perception. (Likewise, I've noticed when my wife and I talk about decorating a room in our house, that she seems to be able to see in her mind what everything will look like, while I have no idea.)  I like building and design metaphors because I need to prototype a thing before I can comprehend it. So much of my music is an experiment of some kind--not that it aspires to be highly original necessarily, but that it tests a concept to see if it would work. (Maybe inventive is better than experimental since inventors seem more fundamentally creative than experimenters, though also more flighty...) For example, most pieces I write are modeled on visual art, text, a mathematical function, or some other process that I find interesting and wonder what it would sound like. So, as Eaton said, I write in order to hear some soundless phenomenon.

And I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels overly burdened by the 19-century idea of the composer-genius, a conduit of the divine, and really just wants to tinker with sounds.

I was thinking about Legos this morning. You can make some cool stuff with Legos (though nothing cooler than the Millennium Falcon), but ultimately the play impulse seems to be keep seeing what else you can build--the process of discovery and building. That was my impulse in my first semester of music theory. When I realized there were component building blocks to the Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy that I loved to play, my instinct was to play with those block to build something myself. I've been tinkering around with sounds for most of my life now, and it still feels like play. And it still feels like serendipity whenever I hear my compositions.

©2017 Joshua Harris