You know that feeling, that inkling—call it an insight—that you’ve done something really good? Something connected to all the beautiful things you love in a sure and answering way? Something you’re fairly certain nobody else has done or thought of before—at least, not in this way? Something you’ve given yourself to, poured your heart into, made whole and right, so that it’s more you than you are yourself?
If you do, then you know it’s a dangerous feeling, for there’s always the possibility that you may be kidding yourself, wishfully thinking about your life with fantastical grandiosity. The moment you let the thought occur that you’ve created something worthwhile, the guilt and self-reproach come storming in: Who the hell are you to proclaim the value of your own work? Besides, if your work is so good, why isn’t it flourishing, why isn’t it making its way more triumphantly into the world?
It is a disease of the mind to dwell on relative fame or obscurity. In any case, the matter is not in your control. The consciousness of it always distracts and dispirits and distempers. The only thing that matters is to keep trying, to invent new strategies for being heard, to sustain trust in yourself against all the terrific and impersonal odds and carry on with the work, which can literally save your life.
This is not a pep talk. It is a statement of basic survival, a plan for holding mind and body together. So you’ve done something good? Make yourself very, very sure…search the farthest reaches of your critical conscience…and then, for goodness’ sake, go tell it on the mountain, shout it in the marketplace, spread the gospel, and make a fool out of yourself doing it. Everything is always at stake—not just your own soul, but the entire world, whose fate and integrity depend absolutely on the sane and audible voice of every single one of us. Everyone, and everything, is connected.
I have been composing music for 35 years. It’s concert music, sometimes called “classical” music, though that’s such a pompous term, all the more so in the context of these skeptical self-inquiries. I write symphonic music, concertos, some vocal music, lots of chamber music, much of it for string instruments and piano, a good deal of it named for favorite books and poems and images. In every instance, the main inspiration for my music has always been the extraordinary player or players for whom the piece was composed, without whom it would not have come into existence, and who—with unaccountable grace—have always treated my work as equal in significance to anything in their repertoire by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, or Stravinsky.
Something strange and fascinating has occurred to me after having lived more than a half-century: I’ve been around long enough to be able to see myself and my work as if they were someone else’s life and someone else’s work. This objectivity is both a blessing and a curse—mostly a blessing, as all healthy disillusionment must be in the end. With painful clarity (that’s the “curse” part), I know that some of my music is merely “respectable” in a careful, bounded sort of way, deriving obviously from favorite masters (Brahms, Copland, Bartok, Crumb, Harbison). But a portion of what I’ve done is really, really good, revealed in the light of my own harsh reckoning as wild, unalloyed, imaginative gold. These works are as life-affirming and death-defying in their way as any music I’ve ever heard, in whatever genre. Am I kidding myself? I don’t think so. I hope not.
Ask anyone who knows me, especially those students at Vanderbilt who have suffered the unseemly passion of my classroom teaching, and they’ll tell you one undisputable thing about me : I’m an obsessive expert on what makes music good, and even great. I should clarify this statement, for of course no two persons can ever completely agree on what makes a piece of music “good.” Here’s the deal: I am preoccupied and spiritually empowered by the idea that certain pieces of music can never die, because their inner light is too bright. That’s how anything survives, whether it’s religious faiths or works of art: a person senses something to be true—both on faith and on the clearest evidence—and she acts upon that feeling, and so the faith abides, the artwork endures. I apply this principle as uncompromisingly to my own music as I do to Beethoven’s or the Beatles’, since even those demigods composed a few things that aren’t worth listening to.
So here I am, introducing myself online, hoping to share my work with you. I hope you find it good. Let me know one way or the other.