Tuesday, January 06, 2009
A small item here about the working habits of philosophers. Composers can be just as eccentric and/or obsessive in their routine meetings with the muse. A rather senior composer of my acquaintance, long retired from teaching, still keeps regular hours in his college office, a courtesy of his emeritus status, taking breaks each hour only to nurse a bit on a cigar (he gave up smoking the things, on Doctor's orders, decades ago). Some composers have to get dressed up for the job — never without the right hat or a properly-tied bow tie —, while others dress down — which might mean a Hefner-esque pyjamas and bathrobe or even less, like a friend with a great glassed-in studio in a woody part of New England, who begins every working session with an hour of improvisation at his white Baldwin grand, without a stick of clothing on his ample body. (The fact that the piano is a white Baldwin seems, somehow, important. Also, I am tempted to make a comment along the lines of ample-bodied composers should NOT compose while naked in glass houses, but one should hope that rule to be self-evident). I belong to the dress-down side, black t-shirted and stocking-footed, in part to make sure I stay put by not looking suitable to travel, but mostly because it's comfortable and I'm just another American male who learned to dress at twelve and never learned any better. I can't have food or drink near my desk, or I'd consume it idly and add to my own ampleness, not to mention a dread of crumbs and spills. At Darmstadt, I once witnessed a row of four young women composing at a dining hall bench and table as if they were taking an entrance exam; it reminded me of Phantom of Liberty. Some composers work with the TV on. Others sit, manuscripts — or now, laptops — in their laps, composing during concerts. Some composers like to work in cafes and bars, but it's probably an even bet that when you start composing in bars, you're on the way out of a composing career. Like Morton Feldman, I've obsessed long about my chair; the current one, rough, wooden, and straight-backed from India has the virtue of being stable and forces me to sit upright, but a lazier style of sitting equipment may well be in my future, a small reward to my aging person. Also, like Feldman, getting the right pen is a serious issue. I cannot use pencils. Only ink. And only black ink, although it damages fountain pens. I used to use RapidographsTM for lines and an off-the-rack calligraphy pen for the rest of the notation, but now I use the computer to notate final scores and parts, while sketching on countless little pieces of paper, and only with black-inked Uni-BallTM micros, which I buy by the dozen and have everywhere accessible. Some composers need an absolutely quiet environment, others need the company of noises. Often, I compose with the radio on (talk, not music). Children are often underfoot, and my studio is full of distracting clutter (at the moment: a gamelan, Greek shadow puppets, an orange NehiTM bottle, two clandestine photos of Duchamp's Etant donnés, a number of kids' drawings and the watchful eye of St. Martin de Porres). I really ought to work everyday to regular hours or to a set minimum of music finished (in bars or seconds), but I just can't. For that degree of regularity, my friends, would be obsessive.