Why I Compose

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AT FIRST I wanted to call this essay “Why I Write (Music),” in reference to Joan Didion, who of course copied Orwell. There is indeed a semantic distinction between the words write and compose, the latter being more comprehensive and more appreciative of the nuances involved in working with wordless sounds, but what concerns me here is something more banal: that is, the difference in how the two words sound.

Didion liked the shared sound of the words “Why I Write”—three I’s, one rattling off after another—for, in her own words, “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people.” Orwell too cited sheer egoism as the first among four great motives for writing. But in “Why I Compose,” there are two I’s followed by this more complex and imposing word compose, which stands among its companions like a giant. I think the particular arrangement in itself of these words, never mind precisely defining the act of composing (a task for which I don’t have the energy), illustrates what I have found in my experience to be the truth of composing, and of the artistic experience in general.

Very early in my schooling a fellow student brought to school a small electronic keyboard, on which I watched him play “Chopsticks,” and my immediate response was to think, “I can’t let this kid be better than me at anything.” I’m not sure if talent is innate in a young person, but a big ego might be. That was how I first fell into the long path (about which I am leaving out many uninteresting details) that led me along a musical life: first as a pianist, then as a composer, and now as an uneasy combination of two or more things.

At parties and in elevators the question is usually formulated this way: what made you decide to become a composer? “Why I Became a Composer” is an essay I would neither write nor read, since it presupposes that to compose is a one-time event rather than an ongoing conflict, but my standard response to well-meaning but ill-informed strangers is that I was no good at the piano but was too far gone into music to consider anything else. That, of course, is only half-true: I have always easily imagined myself as something other than a musician, unlike, say, Christopher Hitchens, who once said in an interview, “It’s not as if I could have been a lawyer, or a doctor, and I chose [writing]. It chose me.”

Well, far be it from me to be flippant towards a man I respected so highly, but if you had no choice, then of course the path is clear. Mine never was to me, and this has been the one source of my greatest anxiety. I look back to various points in my life where I wanted to become a lawyer instead, or a journalist, or a computer programmer, because at least two of those professions are better for the adult ego than music. Being a musician when you are younger is more gratifying, because all your young friends are so easily impressed. When you are older, you find that the work is real and the glamor is not; that the hours are long and the rewards are few; and the same people who were so amazed by you take you less and less seriously, unless perhaps you go to Juilliard.

But let us return to Hitchens’s suspiciously religious suggestion that something can choose you, because somewhere there lies the reason why I compose. I, I, Compose. At first it is only my own desire to be heard by others, but time and again in the throes of creation I find myself answering to a will that is much more powerful than my own, and the elusive moments in which that will is clearest are the most ineffably joyful in the creative process. I think this is the tremendous essence of the artistic experience, and I struggled for a long time to find the right language that does it justice. And I hope that my having quoted an infamous atheist will absolve me of the pleasurable guilt of admitting that I find this language, of all places, only in theology. Note that I am careful to use the term; contrast it with the bland and empty language of consumer spirituality, which you find everywhere these days. Secular media in particular, while thoroughly committed to discrediting religion, hardly abstain from spiritual nonsense. Art nourishes the soul, they say: all this actually means is that it makes you feel good. So does weed.

No, what I mean is the critical study of the claims of religion, in which a formally established system of beliefs and practices finds its fundamental orientation away from the human individual and its attendant liberties, and toward something else entirely Other. To my mind, the major religions are the only human institutions that adequately deal in reasonable terms with the experience of the mysterious, from which I refuse to exclude music. Why must it be institutional? Because there is a word for someone who claims a personal religion: insane. As a child of secularism I certainly will not endorse in these paragraphs any particular belief system, though it may reveal my own bias that I quote the 1999 letter of Pope John Paul II to artists:

Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the soul that is religion? Is it not perhaps within the realm of religion that the most vital personal questions are posed, and answers both concrete and definitive are sought?

I would go so far as to think that music and art are to secular space what the sacraments are to the world of faith. The musical tradition with which I identify had its origins in religious life, but even now that it is almost entirely desacralized, it is no less a conduit through which the sacred might reveal itself. Did you know that an atheist, by using the Trinitarian formula, can validly administer the sacrament of baptism? Wagner was by no accounts a holy man, but the final act of Die Walküre is countless times more sublime than anything they sing at a modern evangelical megachurch.

As I write this, America is in the midst of electing either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to the presidency. It is tempting to think, even among musicians, that nothing else matters as urgently as the outcome of this most farcical of elections, and especially not music. I don’t think so. The governance of a nation may be more important than your ability to distinguish between a fully diminished chord and a minor triad (which is a major preoccupation of a Juilliard education, by the way) but we must neither conflate the mechanisms by which we produce music with the music itself, nor understate the adventures into which music can catapult the human spirit.

Anyway, to reduce music to technique is to objectivize it, and I am not at all interested in the notion of music as object. The product of creation, even at its most complex, may well be intelligible (that is a job for music theorists), but the creative process itself is not so friendly to explanation. I cannot tell you that there is any rational ground to compose, which is why I am much more interested in examining my own creative struggles and those of countless other I’s who fight, knowingly or unknowingly, the notion that the banal and the profane are the end-all of existence. Either by accident or some ancient purpose, I fell into the deep that is composing, and each time I am at work I feel compelled by a tremendous will to see myself through and out of it.

—Joshua Cerdenia
November 7, 2016
New York