Now that my self-imposed month of making a recording every day is over, I wanted to take a little bit of time and take stock of what I did, how it went, and what I got from it.
My original plan was to create a short percussion piece of some kind every day for a month, whether or not I had the time or the motivation on any particular day, with the main goal being to put myself in the habit of daily music-making. I also hoped to carve out some free creative space for experimentation and play, in order to generate and pursue new ideas and loosen myself up; I know that, when I’m Working On A Piece, I tend to go too quickly from the improvised to the written-down, and then I get stuck.
Every day for a month, I made a little percussion recording, using whatever instruments or found objects struck me. Almost everything was recorded using a iPod Touch with a Belkin TuneTalk and FourTrack.
Sometimes there was a theme (things you sit on, sounds my students make), but mainly I just used what’s available to me at home: a drum set, an old vibraphone, and a bunch of little accessory instruments. Sometimes, I just sat down, pressed record, and played the first thing that came into my head. Other times, I had a particular idea I wanted to explore, or the dribbles of an actual piece I was stuck on.
So here’s what happened.
First, like I had hoped, this self-imposed structure helped me to build up and maintain momentum in my creative life. Certainly, I would rather be playing music than doing almost anything else at any given time, but it can be too easy to de-prioritize music-making when there are lessons to be planned, laundry to be done, friendships to maintain, etc. This sketchbook assignment forced me to make music a part of every day; it helped me to schedule my time around music-making, rather than fitting it in as a treat if I got other things done…but making music shouldn’t be the dessert, it’s the tofu and potatoes. Now that it’s “done,” I am finding it much easier to put music higher up on my priority list (but just don’t look in my kitchen, ok?).
I started out the month a bit more adventurous about what instruments I used. The earlier ones included things like a hoodie zipper or an exercise ball, while the later stuff was mostly a lot of drum set and vibraphone. Sometimes I was just too lazy to come up with something weird to play on, other times I had specific concepts or compositional methods I wanted to work with on the vibes and drums. What did stay the same, though, was that as it went on, I found myself thinking about these little sketches all the time, trying to come up with new ideas, searching for neat sounds to use. Before, when I’d think of ideas like that, I’d write them down in a notebook, and then forget them. With this project, there was always a tangible way to put them to use Right Now, and one that I will continue to use.
On a similar note, I think that doing this every day, inspiration or not, gave me a little insight as to what “my style” might be, what my preferences are, and what “my” music sounds like. I realize that sounds kind of ridiculous, but when I first started composing, I spent a lot of time sitting in cafes, drinking americanos and thinking about What Kind of Music I Want to Write. Fun, but all I have to show for it is a bunch of notebooks with lists of bands and vague, rambling thoughts. While there was certainly value in that introspective time, obviously, it’s much more productive to make the music first and figure it out later, and forcing myself to just jump into creating without all of the forethought made that very clear…especially when I realized that some of those vague, rambling thoughts were subconsciously finding their way into the music I ended up making.
I think the most significant thing I’ve gotten from this, though, is putting the focus of composing on actually playing the music. As I write that, I realize what a silly thing it is to say, but let me explain. When I first started composing, I was living in a tiny apartment where I couldn’t actually play anything, and I guess I had this idea of a composer as somebody who pores over staff paper and then hands it to someone else to perform. I would improvise to come up with ideas for pieces, but then end up stuck in the space between “hey, I have this great idea for a piece, it sounds like this!” and “ok, how am I going to write this so someone else can play it?” with nothing to show for it but some half-baked iPod recordings and scribbled-on staff paper.
Doing this project showed me what should have been obvious all along: the composer and the performer don’t have to be two separate people. Pieces don’t have to have every note written out, or even most notes written out; they can change substantially from one performance to the next. Of course I knew this, but somehow wasn’t applying it to my own work.
So why does it matter? Well, part of the reason I started composing was to give myself something to play that was within my means as an individual without the easy and ample access to loud-music-friendly spaces, skilled colleagues, and a huge inventory of expensive, obscure, or large instruments that association with a university gives a percussionist. I had this subconscious idea that I wouldn’t be ready to perform anything until I had nailed it down on a piece of paper, but that’s just silly. Through doing this project, I got a glimpse of what solo performing could look like for me now, something beyond classic marimba solos and recital halls. With the help of technology, I can be my own percussion ensemble, performing and recording and composing on my own terms.