Juggling Composition Time

I am not yet an established composer, so I have to continue to work my day job. Philip Glass worked his “day job” for years even after the success of “Einstein on the Beach.” Esa-Pekka Salonen was more fortunate having to juggle conducting with composing and yet, has stepped down from the LA Philharmonic to allow himself more time to compose. This sort of struggle to find time to compose is nothing new. Mendelssohn struggled with composing verses conducting for much of his life (although he tended to favour the podium to the pen).

Most of the time, I compose in the evening. If I can get a little composition work done each day to keep up the habit of writing, I find the discipline helps keep the writing successful. This does, however, impact my evenings. Fortunately, I opted to have a family early. My kids are grown, so if I spend my evenings composing, the time is not taken away from spending time with my children as they grow. Of course, I still end up taking time away from my wife, but as she is a writing partner (currently working on an opera together), she understands the need to spend some time each night writing (she does it too with her own pursuits as a novelist).

The most difficult aspect of writing in this way is following the muse of the moment. In order to ensure I have something to work on each evening, I tend to maintain a list of projects I need to finish, so I end up with deadlines constantly appearing on the horizon. When I was studying at university, I had composition deadlines, but writing at the time was very much moving where the mood took me, as opposed to writing for specific projects. If I worked on one piece and it wasn’t going well, I could always just write something else. Now, my projects are taking on a much more business trend. Film makers want their films done in time to make their screenings or festivals. Commissions (yes, I have started getting a few – not enough for me to quit my day job, but every little bit helps), also have a deadline, although they tend to be a bit further out. Still, the expectation of seeing progress on each project is still there, so each night I sit in front of the computer, or at the piano hoping to make some progress.

For me, the writing comes in waves. Some days are good; some are not so much, although, I have learned to make some progress every day. It takes discipline to sit down and write every evening, and to know when one project is not going well, to be able to turn to another one that might be better. Having multiple projects going at any one time is also a key for me to keep being productive. If one piece isn’t working, another one might. The only problem with multiple projects is that they tend to get into crunch mode at the same time. My wife, Eddie, tends to thrive really well with this sort of looming deadline, and truly some of my best writing happens the closer the project is to the drop dead date.

What I try and accomplish is keeping just enough projects in the hopper to keep busy and yet with enough staggered due dates to not let anything drop between the cracks. The more I write the faster the process becomes, and the better able I am to make deadlines. I don’t know that I’ve missed anything to date, and hope to keep that record intact. However, it does take a bit of juggling to keep a sense of sanity. But then again, maybe sanity is over-rated – and the very idea of trying to compose for a living means I’ve crossed that line already.


Right now I am on holiday in the US (hoping to catch a performance of "The Bonesetter's Daughter" in San Francisco), but working on:
"It Must Be Fate" - an opera with my wife Eddie
"Violin Concerto No 1" - for Tristan Gurney
Film Trailer music - for J.Shaamal

oh, and applying for Master's programs in a half dozen universities, which is surprisingly a fairly time consuming task.

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