A Composer's Mosaic:

The Composing Journals of Stuart Saunders Smith (1985-86)



Stuart Saunders Smith,

entries selected and edited by Sylvia Smith






I compose because I have to.


I compose to make a difference.





Composers must put themselves in an unfamiliar room – a room where all the objects and furniture are unfamiliar. The composer’s job is to put this room in order.  (If the room is familiar, and the objects and furniture in the room are already in order, then one knocked on the wrong door!)


The way to find these special chaotic rooms is by risking.  The initial risk is knocking on an unknown door of an unknown room with unknown objects and furniture – this is how one begins.  The rest is composition! 




Musical invention should not be a historical requirement for glory – a conscious effort to achieve notice within the limits of a linear historiography that can only value the next invention, or worse yet, the next bandwagon.  This “tradition of the new” is decadent.  It floats, tragically, without an anchor.


Craft is all too often a badge of respectability – a façade of learning, without wisdom.  It is simply making one’s inventions work.  Craft most often stands for mere correctness.  Cowardice in the face of risk!





Balance is my goal.  A balance between craft and invention, or “homo faber” and “homo-risk-taker”. I need the middle ground between only invention and only craft.  The middle ground is deep in our center, our core, our solitude, and is the shaping force in composition. From this middle ground I must shape a perfect synthesis of what is and what must be.  In this middle ground, invention and craft are one.






Affirmational Art


“An arranger will do.”


It is quite simple, really!  There are fundamentally two types of art.  One reinforces, validates, and perpetuates what was once composition but now has become the status quo.  This art is affirmational; it affirms what already is.  It offers no new perceptions.  Pop music and the standard symphonic literature are good examples of affirmational art – art that offers security through stasis.


Affirmational art can never offer up a revolution, just a change in fashion.  Affirmational artists do not create new languages or speak in new languages.  They rearrange old, pre-existing ones with claims of “new and improved”.  In fact, affirmational art does not need the services of a composer.  An arranger will do!



Aspirational Art


“It is made by composers.”


The other art is aspirational.  It gives us new realities, new modes of perception, new ways to organize the world.  It does not affirm what we already know.  It aspires.  Aspirational art reflects dissatisfaction with the here and now.  It is made by the “If only,” “Why not,” “I wonder” people.


Aspirational artists are against that part of a culture which is a system of relationships and customs with the primary purpose of just maintaining itself.  The aspirational artist must be against culture to carry it along – to keep it alive.  And there is the paradox: one who loves culture must be against it!





Most university music departments and conservatories were created to train people almost exclusively as affirmational artists.  The least inspired, the most myopic of this group become the cultural caretakers.  The best find some way to breathe life into the revolutions of the past.


Many musicians never really ask themselves what service they are performing, and for what segment of society. 


Are you after a quick return on your investment?


OK.  But to what end? 


When is enough, enough?


Performers, for your own sanity, for your own inner survival, spend less time affirming, re-affirming, re-re-affirming, re-re-re-affirming, re-re-re-re-affirming.  Do not become mere repeat signs of the past!





So many artists I grew up with postured as free spirits – the rebellious artist – while unconsciously training their interior world to embrace cultural conservatism.  Over time, they made themselves into wallpaper for an immutable granite tomb.





Too much public “success” can stop a composer’s journey in mid-stream.  Given the allurements of constant public adulation or interest, it is very tempting to repeat the old tricks that got the public excited, rather than continuing one’s inner journey.  Success encourages the composer to look outside for validation. 


(Perhaps when I am a very old composer, the consumers will make a success out of me.  That’s OK.  I’ll be almost out of their reach!!)





What comes next?


By “what must come next” I don’t mean the decade syndrome that the art journalists have fabricated.  You know: “60s art.”  “What will the 80s bring?”  Well, the 60s and the 80s don’t make art.  Inner time, subjective time, has no clocks or calendars.  It is not measureable.  Inner time is a refuge from clock time --  the assembly line time – the standard replaceable parts time.







The outside world gets a NO TRESSPASSING notice.  To the extent you can, prevent the outer world from entering your life.  Become your own culture.  Art will come to you.  Being outside gives clarity and clues to what must come next.  Compose away from common everyday time.


In my life as a composer, I must be like a phantom, always around the corner, eyeing the party from a remote park bench, blending into the woodwork.  Then hit and run, quick and invisible, never to be caught.  I will stay away from the press and the cultural consumers at all costs.  Bloodsuckers!!!





The issue in composing is not uptown vs. downtown; serialism vs. tonality, etc.  The issue is what it always was: authenticity.  The person who stumbles onto an idea first, or the person who digs very deep to find uniqueness at their core, each will exude a genuineness.  It is this authority of idea that is at the heart of important composition – that which transcends materials.





There are two kinds of composers.  One goes down into his intuition fighting conditioning to weed out all but the unique.  The other goes out by playing games that circumvent conditioning.


Composers have a choice between down and out – these two related, sometimes inseparable paths.  Composer as humanist/poet, or composer as engineer/inventor.


I am a humanist composer, going down to dig and delve, to mine my own treasure.





A notation is not just what’s on the paper.  It’s its own interpretation, too. 


Bad notation is not realizing you are what you notate.


You are what you make, and in making, become what you are.


We are not separate from the things we make.  We are those things, those things we notate. 


We are the notations.  We are those note things.





Democracy and Art.


If people are trying to bury you alive, don’t lend them a shovel.  It is not the time to be democratic.





The Future: Unknown





The arts do not lead to knowledge.  I am not sure science leads to knowledge either.  I don’t think there is ever an endpoint where all our questions are answered.  But there is a distinction between art and science.  Art is trying to create truth.  Science thinks it is revealing truth.




I know a piece is finished when I feel empty as I hear it.  There is no more of that world left in me.  It is all outside of me now.  If I feel a slightly sick sensation in my gut, then there is more to say, or the piece needs revision.


I like the new piece to be out in front of me, in the distance, not easily seen as a whole. 





Mainstream jazz is based on the idea of cycles and conversation.  The chord progressions do not really progress anywhere.  They go around and around like a wheel.  There may be a mini-climax within each turn of the wheel, but often there is no overall design to the sum total.  New Jazz, while not maintaining the chord wheel, does maintain a breath structure related to the conversational concept.  Each breath is a self-contained impulse.  Each breath is a mini-composition.  A great New Jazz performance is like a string of pearls, each breath a gem.  Each breath connects to the next because it comes from the same person and because, well, there it is.  The same mind breathing its music.  Since it is the same mind, it’s the same music.  Musical structure and continuity, then, is the surface of what happens as the mind breathes its music – a field of gestures being drawn upon rather than a pre-ordained government for notes.  In other words, the music is held together by the will of the composer or player rather than a pre-compositional structure to insure connectivity.  This is the talking model of music rather than the writing model.  I do not mean improvising versus writing music.  For it is very possible – I do it all the time – to write out talking music.


In talking, the focus is on the moment and the immediate context.  In the writing model, longer histories become possible, for writing gives us the possibility of extended memory.  This talking model gives us rich moment after moment.  Each breath trying to be richer and more immediate than the last, a structure rooted in the body and propelled with great vitality.


Breath music surges on.  The time created by this surging is at once still and very active.  It’s like the ocean.  It moves on the surface but is ultimately stationary.  It is a thoroughly rooted energy, not so much built as released.





After reading my ideas about success to Sylvia late last night, she said, “Fame is always based on a misconception.  Always.”





Any phenomenon structures itself through us.


In order for a thing to be a thing (and not just anything) it needs someone to recognize it as that thing and no other.


We cannot perceive chaos.  In the act of perception we make an order through our senses.


Chaos can exist only when there is no perception.  We extract order out of chaos.  We are the universe’s filter – Creation’s helper.


If we are never without order, why do composers concern themselves so much with whether their compositions exhibit order?  Chaos is a term to describe an ordering we do not like or won’t recognize.  There are various degrees of ordering on a continuum – from the simple ability to hear, to apprehending extremely complex designs.  (Just hearing a pitch is perceiving order.)


Given my definition of chaos, fearing it is like fearing composition.  In fact, the composer should seek chaos as an unattainable goal.  (Now that’s real new Romanticism for ya!)





The Pre-Compositional Process.


Often the pre-compositional process entails the search for a perfect system – a system that will unify all the sounds in a piece and generate automatic connectivity, a perfect order.


It may be a perfect order, but will it be a perfect piece?


What do the sounds want?


Too often composers are note-dictators, telling notes what to do without listening to the notes to see what they want to do.  Perhaps they fear that the intuition is a messy jumble, or worse, just a conditioned collection of clichés.  Well, it isn’t either of these.  Intuition is a very rapid, rooted, non-verbal pattern pool which needs to be listened to instead of forced.  Personal riches and unique patterns are found in this pool because each of us is a little different.  We all have different filters.  Composers fish for the differences.  That is composition.





Any system provides its own answers.


Perfect systems allow no transcendence.


In a perfect system, everything fits.  One is bound, locked in.  Nothing can move.  The system protects itself with its own perfect stasis.


A perfect system usually generates art work that is mechanically easy to explain.  “Each note is there for a reason.”  Note machines – note generating systems give unidimensional results.  Music is not reason.  Music need not have anything to do with logic or sequencing.  I want the structure of music to be just as alive as life.  When I compose:  “Each note is there for a sound.”  





Even transcendence can be tragic when it gives birth to a perfect system.  So-called cultural evolution is trading one straight-jacket for another.


We need evolving and involving systems that are seeds for unknown fruit.


Perhaps what we need are not systems at all, but schemes – general formats that encourage unforeseen events to occur which will recontextualize the past while pointing to a future that would be otherwise unforeseeable.


If we know the results of our compositional process, why use it?  What is gained if you know the outcome of the process?  What is learned by creating a system that gives predictable answers to predictable questions?


Can we make music that behaves like creativity itself?  Most Western art music acts as a residue of creativity rather than part of the process itself.  The artwork is the final step in a moving, alive process, but the final step is all that is allowed to exist.  The process disappears.  The process is the best part!


I like things that move better than things that stand still.



Things in the state of becoming

Are more becoming

Than things that have already come


And gone.





The importance given to pre-compositional systems can give the illusion of objectivity.  It is as if the music exists as a manifestation of a more universal truth rather than as an expression of mere personal taste.  No note is chosen for an “arbitrary” reason.  Each note is a correct answer to the question of its origin.  It comes from the system, the law.  In other words, each note has a distinct point of origin in the overall plan and, like fate, is predestined.  Each note has a pedigree and is certified by the system.  (No wild oats or wild notes!)  The personal responsibility of the composer is hidden behind a note government designed in the image of the ruling scientific model for reality.





Is your name a symbol for you, or you?


What is important in notating?

What is important.

You leave the rest out.


You do not choose the appropriate notation like the right hat in a store.  The music comes in its notation.


Notations will always reveal and express their user.


Notations will be all that is left of you, in time.


That is the danger and power of any notation – its perfection.  For a notation will “work” even when it does things you do not want it to do, or when it is impossible to perform.  And that notation is YOU.


Is your name a symbol for you, or you???





I do not mean to imply by my comments on systems that one somehow composes blindly; that one has to make some sort of red-hot passionate gesture.  Yes, we must continually develop new ways of generating materials.


Our ideas concerning systems seem limited.  When making systems we either borrow from other disciplines (set theory, stochastic math, etc.) or we make systems that insure one idea will develop from or transform into another.  We are either co-opted by science or insist that music tidy-up after itself so we can have a neat apartment.


Why not a music of odds and ends, with no development, flowing along an intricately made time-line design?  We need to invent ways of forming music with intrinsically musical methodologies, based on the stuff of music itself, or invent procedures which are not based on deriving sounds from a single formula.





Analysis means to take something apart, to see how the parts fit together.  Are we composing works as if we were analyzing them first?  Is pre-compositional organization governed by our concept of analysis?  Has our concept of analysis lead us to limit our notion of how musical material can unfold?


It is as if many of us compose backwards, starting with analysis!  Good theoreticians tell their students, “Don’t make the piece fit your theory.”  But that is precisely what many composers are doing.





What should analysis do?


Analysis is too safe when it just tells us how the piece was made.  We should risk speculation and interpretation as we make mechanical explanations.  Otherwise, our music becomes a head-game without guts.


Analysis should extend a piece beyond itself.


An analysis is a conceptual performance of a piece. 


An analysis is the piece not bound by time.


A piece of music can be viewed as an alternative reality, not just a musical and esthetic object, but a global model, a new way of locating oneself in the world.


What are the implications of a new way of listening?  For vision?  For government?  For science?  For religion?







Analysis tells us not only what is there in a piece, but also who is there as the analyst.  To make that relationship unambiguous, we should be more openly subjective and speculative in our scholarship.  Analysis often hides the subjective position of the analyst under a cloak of seemingly objective terminology, giving the illusion of unassailable truth.  Under this model, the analysis tends to freeze a piece instead of illuminating it. 


As players, when we learn a piece for performance, we figure out how it is made, as we let the sounds and their ordering filter through our own temperament and imagination.  We, with our history and our personal baggage and experience, take part in the piece.  This is why we can have so many interpretations of a piece: because the performer gets involved on a personal musical level.


This model that performer’s use could be available to analysts also.  But how would we start to involve ourselves in the work?  Even if one said: “I love this piece because it is so pretty,” it would be a better place to start than the dry number talk.


For composers, the great leap into the unknowable is made by making things that are beyond analysis.  It is only then that we free music and, ironically, free analysis.


First composing.  Then analysis.  Always.





A farmer was hauling his wheat seed to be cleaned.  He is stopped on the road by a friend.  “What are you doing?” his friend asks.  The farmer explains, “I’m going to get my wheat seed cleaned.  The process will sort out the grass seed, dirt, and thistles, leaving just the wheat seed.”  To this the friend replies, “Aren’t you being judgmental?”





John Cage has often described the purpose of music as self-alteration.  And music for self-alteration cannot be of the self.  If the self is to be altered, then the music must come from outside the self – music for the self, not music of the self.


The achievements of such a strategy are many: new esthetic models, new notations, new forms, new processes, etc.  But there is a coolness, a detachment, a basic distrust of the self.  His was an achievement of the head over the heart.  Cage thought that you could not have both, that the heart was a conditioned robot just beating to the drum of social convention.  Cage’s position with his chance procedures is that humans are conditioned creatures that love consistency and repetition.  Shake it up as a counter-balance.


I agree with Cage that the purpose of music is self-alteration.  But I get there differently.  I practice self-alteration in composing.  My music, among other things, is a record of my self, altering.  Further, I hold that the heart and the head can be one. 





I want to live in a society that values new, radical ways of being in the world.  I want to live in a society that meets an unusual, unfamiliar message with joyful surprise and delight at being challenged.


I would love a society that loved to feel against the grain – that met roughness of touch with quiet, personal reassessment.


I would love a society that considered composition a search for a unique language, not a collective expression which lulls us with its self-congratulation.


I love music of reassessment, not music of reassurance.





Sometimes we confuse complexity with versatility, and abundance with freedom.  Simple hand tools are more versatile than a mechanical heart.  In the face of a computer that has fifteen million possible color choices, one longs for the freedom of a more limited palette.


Computers do not give us abundance, versatility, or freedom.  What can compete with the drum for these attributes?  The drum is the simple hand-tool of music.





A piece of music begins as a bird, high up, flying like an explosion.  The atmosphere slows it down.  Gradually it becomes a rock, rolling on the ground.  Then it stops.  Moss grows on it.  Finally, if it’s lucky, it marks graves. 

Is this what we want?

What’s the alternative?

Keep art from becoming culture for as long as possible.





Poor Beethoven!  Look what history has done to him.  I mean, who can hear Beethoven without all that mythology tagging along? 



The question whether I like a piece or don’t like a piece trivializes listening.  It would be better to say, this piece is needed, or not needed.





As a youngster, I went with my father to see old houses that he was going to fix up and then sell.  These houses were usually in pretty bad shape.  If many more years went by, they would fall down of their own weight.  Each room of these houses had a pile of traces left by the previous owners, long gone, in the middle of the floor.  There were old books, photos of loved ones, letters, bills, pots and pans, old glassware.  A deep feeling of loss welled up inside me as I looked through those piles.  All that was left of those lives in those houses was a jumble of knick-knacks and dust. 


From those early memories, I learned to connect return with pathos.  The past is always sad because it sharpens our awareness that we cannot recapture the past with memories in the present.  When we return, all we can see is our traces – our reflections – passing by us while the real thing is forever gone.  That is the tragedy.


Music is the art of organizing memory.  Much of my music is formally very simple.  The interaction of contrapuntal moments and that old sinking feeling of return is often central to my music.  In my music there is no heroic or triumphant return as in the sonata form or other classical formal designs.  In my music, the stuff just comes back as a pile on the floor, of the old house in the country.