Writing about writing…

It’s been almost six years since my previous post—six long years of silence haha. So many events and experiences—National Service, undergrad Music course at Cambridge, various internships… too many to be listed here publicly—have happened in and around my life since then. From time to time, it did occur to me to post some thoughts, especially in my third year at Cambridge when I was taking the Music and Philosophy course, and my assumptions (regarding music and aesthetics) were being boggled, challenged, and reshaped. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak; nothing has been produced. Until now.

Perhaps I now have more self-managed time on my Masters Composition course, to dip my face once again into the pensieve? Also, more self-managed time means more time for composing, and more composing means more time spent ‘in my own world’, from which flows an endless array of random ruminations, flashes of eureka (or so I think), ideas, questions, irritating remarks (usually cringe-inducing puns that make my friends regret knowing me in the first place), … In Mandarin we refer to this ‘world’ as 精神世界 (something like one’s metaphysical consciousness, or more crudely, ‘psychological world’).

The floodgates seem to have been re-opened, and with this post I intend to unclog my channel of thought. I hope it doesn’t clog up again; it takes considerable self-discipline to get myself to write thoughts down. I have been bugged by this fear of forgetting thoughts (which have potential for further chewing) if I do not write them down after they mushroom in my mind. I think I might have lost quite a handful of good discussion topics this way…

Or maybe it’s because I have reached a point in my twenties where I am finally brave enough to attempt to reconcile my past self, instead of hiding it and saying “that’s not me”. (Admittedly I have left this blog ‘unpublished’ for a good five years, while still maintaining my WordPress composition portfolio.) Reading my posts from 2010 (yes, I sound like a self-indulgent narcissist, or at best a chronological self-snob… what?!) made me realise that I used to be rather… forthcoming with theoretical concepts. I seemed to be trying to internalise and consolidate my experience of music (from my music lessons, daily life, etc.) by explicating them with theories of all sorts—purpose in music, compositional design, what a ‘good’ composition is, …

My writing flowed so innocently and intuitively, unhindered by academic precepts (by virtue of my ignorance at that time); coupled with my long-windedness, I could have gone on forever. I get the sense that I was ‘spray-firing machine gun rounds’ all over—my thoughts were fleeting from one topic to the next, then an interjectory anecdote, then yet another topic… Yet my present self has this curious admiration for the person I was seven years ago, for his unfettered, unashamed courage to want to post such musings publicly.

So this post has turned into some sort of past-present reconciliation ya? Indeed, for the five years during which this blog was ‘unpublished’, I have had mixed thoughts about writing such ruminative posts about music and aesthetics. Sometimes I felt that my opinion doesn’t matter—vanity, vanity!—because whatever I write about would have already been written by someone else, because I am a ‘nobody’ (in the sense of not being a published writer), and because no one really reads blogs these days (I’ll be truly surprised you are reading this post now, and you’ve actually come this far.) On other occasions, I felt like my juvenile thoughts are meant to stay within me, and I ought not to bother others with my unqualified rambling, so I should make sure it does not exist in the first place, lest I further contribute to electronic junk.

Another thought which proved extremely inhibitive was the word ‘Publish’ and all its attendant fears. The moment I click that button, I am releasing fragments of my private self into the public domain. “The writing had better be good, or it could misrepresent me,” so I thought. It doesn’t help that the same word is used for highly acclaimed academic writers (so many of whom I came to read, and read of, during my time in Cambridge), who spend years researching and studying their respective fields before hitting ‘publish’. Fine, it’s usually someone else (the publishing house) who hits the ‘publish’ on the writers’ behalf, but the point is clear—their reputations are at stake.

Yes, there is truth in restraints as such (being sensitive to the potential online vulnerability I face), but my present self thinks that these restraints appear more like excuses to cop myself out from exercising intellectual integrity. If I had something to write, I think I should just get it written. It can very well be a published draft, representing my current state of progress in my musical thinking (as long as I observe my manners in appropriate, reasoned written discourse). Furthermore, I think there is an acceptable degree of image-consciousness that is productive in the interest of quality; beyond that one would not have the impetus to create, because every (truly) creative act exposes a corresponding aspect of vulnerability to self. (There goes my theorising tic.) I think this sheds light on a deeper issue which needs to be addressed—I have to reconsider my intent behind writing these posts, and the extent to which I think they represent and identify me. In other words, I need to establish some sort of a ‘manifesto-for-self’.

Provisionally, then, I set out to write as a composer. I shall write while I compose, write about what (and how) I compose, and write so that I can compose (a way of ‘thought purging’, or again, the pensieve, if you will). My present conviction holds that a ‘healthy lifestyle’ for a composer requires regular re-thinking (and ‘refreshing’) topics surrounding musical aesthetics and expression; learned composition is defined by a high (sub-)consciousness to issues as such. It helps having recently read chapters from Boulez’s Orientations, in which he musters a glorious rant against the aesthetic ‘fetishists’ of his time (pp. 31-43), and theorises about his brand of aesthetics (pp. 44-62). Similarly, Berio in his Remembering the Future, originally a series of lectures given at Harvard University in 1993-94, enjoyed great freedom in his theoretical sense-making of music, and specifically, explicating his practice of composition from a philosophical angle. Writing as a composer offers a strange sense of empowerment, probably because of the positional authority I am suddenly entitled to (don’t ask how); the result is a deeply liberating writing process, one which also provides plenty of opportunities for continued self-discovery.

It doesn’t matter to me if these posts are not read, because I think they are helpful more for myself. That said, I certainly do not regard them as hardline Babbittian ‘Who-cares-if-you-don’t-read’ (yes, ever-tricky issues of self-imagined snobbery). Instead, I am writing with the awareness that they could be read, by virtue of them existing in the public domain (I am happy that they are public), and I hope to write them as clearly as possible, so that they could be read. Expressing my thoughts clearly in words (and arguably, even the process of attempting to) helps me to develop and internalise well-formed arguments. Many of these posts are likely to be of considerable length, mainly because of the nature of their topics, and partly because I am by nature long-winded.

At this point of writing, I do feel that many of the proverbial roadblocks, which have previously hindered my writing, have now been cleared. In fact, writing this quasi-reconciliatory post seems to have catalysed my thought processes, and I see myself well-poised to get back into a regular (if not frequent) writing routine. Bright light shines ahead…

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