Don’t Be Boulez

When the French high modernist Pierre Boulez was studying with René Leibowitz, the older composer dared to suggest several places in which his student’s first piano sonata could stand some improvement. Hugely affronted, Boulez — who had been planning to dedicate the sonata to Leibowitz — screamed “Vous êtes merde!” (“You are shit!”) and stormed from the room. Later, when preparing the sonata for publication, he saw the dedication on the title page and viciously scratched it out with a letter opener*.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most graceful way to handle criticism. And yet, I’ve definitely been there. Composing is intense, intimate stuff, and even mild criticism, gently couched, can feel like an attack on you as a person and everything you hold dear. When it’s not couched gently, when it digs below surface slip-ups to target the fundamental structure of a work, it can cut like the most vicious of knives. 

And yet, criticism is an integral part of creative life. You don’t get better without people pointing out where you’ve gone astray, often repeatedly and at length. How do you handle someone tearing into something you wrote without comparing them to excrement and symbolically stabbing them in the face?

Step 1: Panic

I honestly don’t think there’s any way around this. To this day, whenever anyone offers even the mildest suggestion that improvements might be in order for something I’ve written, my very first reaction is to slam on the breaks, throw up my defenses, and come up with eleventy million reasons why they are wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong and a philistine with no understanding of music or beauty to boot. This is, I feel the need to stress, completely irrational. It does not matter who it is who’s offering this criticism — Future!me could appear in a vision saying “Look, I know you’re really excited about that chord progression, but I’m telling you it will only bring you grief and you’re gonna wind up changing it a week after the first rehearsal anyway.” and part of me would still want to sneer “Oh yeah? Maybe it’s a bad idea over in your second-rate timeline, but over in this one, it’s obviously the right choice, so why don’t you hop back in your fancy-shmancy time machine and go eat an overcooked steak with a plastic spork!”.

The trick is to not actually say things like that out loud. Recognize that this is an irrational, petulant response, and try not to get caught up in it. Let it take its course, and then move on with your life. (Your mileage may vary, of course, but I find that for the best-couched feedback, I get over it in a matter of seconds or minutes now, tho the harsher stuff can take a few days. In the latter case, I find the sheer fact of my continued artistic existence to be a great help in getting on to the next stages. When hoards of internet commenters don’t descend to declare me a bankrupt fraud, when I’m not kicked out of ASCAP or blackballed from every concert series in the world, when my artistic friends and peers don’t abruptly turn from me and cut off all professional contact (like I said, this stage of criticism-reaction is not coming from a particularly rational place . . . ) — all of these things are useful signs that, despite the reaming out I just received, I’m still very much a composer with the potential to write good music, and there are people around me who believe in me.)

(Frequently, of course, you have to do this live, which is a different and exciting kettle of fish. I tend to slap on my most dogged smile and practice saying “Huh”, “I see what you mean”, and “I guess I never thought of it that way” a lot. Then, of course, there are times where you’re called upon to justify your questionable artistic choices. The best is when you do actually have a justification, but for those occasions when you don’t . . . I’m not gonna actually tell you to bullshit your way thru a composition seminar, but let’s just say that not every explanation I’ve ever given of my musical reasoning has been strictly, 100% accurate to my actual thinking on the ground, or lack thereof.)

Eventually, the little tantrum-throwing part of your brain will burn itself out, and then you’re ready to move on to actually dealing with the feedback you’ve gotten.

Step 2: Sort

I find it basically impossible to do this while the irrational part of my brain is having a meltdown about not being perfect, hence why this is Step Two, but Step One isn’t so much part of the process as a necessary prelude to it, and it’s here that the work of actually taking the criticism really begins.

Most criticism falls pretty neatly into one of three categories: Discard, Use Now, or Use Later. Let’s examine them in turn.

Discard: This is feedback that is, quite frankly, Not Useful. Often, this is the result of artistic perspectives that are so different as to be irreconcilable. I once studied with someone who was Not A Fan of contemporary composers writing tonal music, and on several occasions they bemoaned the fact that I was bringing in pieces that still had unmistakeable tonal centers. I don’t think either one of us was Objectively Right about the aesthetic value of tonality in contemporary music, but the point is I like tonality, and so telling me that you don’t isn’t really going to help me get my compositional vision across. Or, to take another example: The people I know who don’t like the timbral combination of bassoon and piano are unlikely to have a lot of helpful feedback on the piece I wrote for that combination. This is the category for people that you feel confident saying (if not directly to their faces) are just wrong about your piece.

(I also firmly believe that, you get a certain number of exceptions, things that, sure, may not be The Best And Most Defensible decisions, but they’re important to you and you like them, dammit, so they’re staying in. Criticism aimed at these goes into the “discard” pile as well, tho maybe a little more cautiously than stuff that’s wildly off base.)**

Use Now: This covers the little stuff. Maybe this dissonance isn’t quite the chord you want, or that transition goes on longer than it really needs to. (Fun fact: If you are ever on the fence about a specific chord or transitional moment, 90% of the time that will be the very first thing someone mentions when giving feedback.) Or perhaps that note is supremely difficult to tune on clarinet, and is there any way to re-work the counterpoint in that measure? Note that I don’t necessarily mean these changes are always quick to make — I once spent an hour and a half trying to find the right dissonant chord for one word in a choral piece . . . and then re-wrote that passage four times. But they’re concrete, specific tasks, and the target area for re-working is small and easily pinpointable. Fix this chord. Trim this passage. Get the clarinet into a different octave. Even if the actual working out winds up taking more time than you expect, there’s no question at all about the point of attack.

Use Later: These are for the more obnoxious, but potentially more important, bits of criticism. Some of this will be structural: This movement feels unbalanced. There’s too much (or not enough) contrast between the different sections. The first movement makes demands that the last one doesn’t fully answer. The rest of it will tend to be more conceptual: Have you thought about exploring more of the upper register of the violin? What’s the relationship between the soloist and the accompaniment? How are you interacting with 18th-Century forms given subsequent developments in compositional technique? None of these (in either flavor) have easy, obvious answers. The most convincing way to balance a movement might be to lengthen one section, but it might equally be to shorten another, or even add an entirely new section that wasn’t there to begin with. Expanding the range of a piece almost always involves recalculating its overall arc and flow, and isn’t simply a matter of adding ledger lines. Higher level conceptual concerns may not have easily identifiable concrete manifestations at all. These issues are ones that require taking a step back and thinking about the piece as a whole, independent of the nuts and bolts in any one measure.

Obviously, these categories aren’t watertight. Changing a dissonance may reveal a structural flaw; re-balancing an uneven movement is sometimes as simple as re-working a critical transition; conceptual stances can have structural manifestations and vice versa. But still, by and large I’ve found them to be pretty robust. Most critiques aim pretty squarely at a specific spot, a large chunk, or a deeper philosophical underpinning, and the different kinds call for different responses.

Step 3: Apply

In the best of all possible worlds, no one would ever be working on a hard deadline, and there would always be ample time to workshop every new piece, carefully considering all feedback and incorporating it in a thoughtful, thoro manner.

Reality is seldom so accommodating.

Especially at summer music festivals, I’ve often received feedback on a piece that’s already in the hands of the performers, too far along in the rehearsal process to make any but the most superficial of changes. Sometimes there’s a little more breathing room, but seldom enough that major structural overhauls can be seriously considered. That’s where the categories come in.

You should almost always make Use Now changes at the earliest possible opportunity. I’m channeling Neil Gaiman pretty heavily here, but when someone tells you that something specific in your piece doesn’t work, they are almost always right. Suggestions for how to fix that thing are rather more hit and miss, tho in my experience I find that most people simply don’t offer any at all. This is as it should be! My job, as a composer, is to solve musical problems, and when someone else identifies a passage in my music that isn’t working, they’ve effectively handed me a problem and said “Here, do your job.”. They might have helpful pointers, but it’s not their job to; solving the problem is a task for me, not for them.

Use Later feedback should be approached with more caution. Again, it’s quite likely to be right, but it’s the kind of advice that’s hard to deal with in the heat of the moment. I find it most productive to set a critiqued work aside after making the Use Now changes and come back to it later with the structural criticisms in mind. Often re-familiarizing myself with the work, coming at it with more distance than I could have had when it was still fresh in my mind from the original writing, will bring clarity to these structural issues. For Use Now changes, this distance makes everything feel like pulling teeth; for Use Later ones, it’s absolutely critical.

Sometimes, of course, I decide I can live with it. Sure, this movement may be a little ungainly, but life is short, and while I could spend it endlessly perfecting the pieces I’ve already written, at a certain point I’d rather just move on to something new. (Gaiman is lurking in the background again here. You don’t finish pieces of music, you just abandon them . . . )

And this is where the conceptual advice comes in. Conceptual feedback is almost never applicable to the piece it’s given in response to. To take a concrete example: The question about 18th-Century forms was actually posed to me with regards to my clarinet sonata. At the time, I couldn’t fully parse it, but now I understand what the critiquer was getting at, and I actually basically agree with their point. But to reflect that understanding and agreement in the sonata would require tearing it apart and rebuilding it from the ground up — not just trimming or expanding a section, but fundamentally altering the way the piece ticks. It would, in effect, require writing a second clarinet sonata, and that seems like an unnecessary course of action when the one I have basically works, if perhaps less so on the level of this critique.

But fast forward to this spring when I was writing my bassoon sonata, and suddenly many of the same issues were at play. Only then I was already building a new piece from first principles, and I could actually take this understanding and incorporate it on the ground floor. Different people have different thresholds when it comes to the question of whether it’s worth re-writing something entirely, but I find that conceptual advice is what pushes me to bring the next piece to a new and higher level of compositional quality and craft.

So there you have it, that’s how I deal with constructive criticism of my work! I let myself have the emotional reaction that I have (without futilely trying to quash it), I figure out what kind of feedback the person is giving me, and I apply it to the work in question at the appropriate stage of the revision process. It may sound a little clunky, but it seems to be working — My music is always getting better, and I have yet to call any of my teachers a piece of shit.

*I get this anecdote from Alex Ross (The Rest is Noise, p 361-2), who in turn gets it from Joan Peyser. In this, as in so very many things, Boulez is precisely the opposite of a role model for me.

**Arguably, there’s another subcategory here of “Advice You’re Just Not Ready For Yet”. There are definitely composition lessons I’ve had that I didn’t understand at the time but can now look back on and say “Ah, I see what that person was getting at now; I was totally not thinking about music on this level at that time.”. In a very real sense, you simply can’t heed advice you’re not ready for yet, but it’s hardly the end of the world. If it’s good advice, you can be very sure that you will have many future encounters with it.