By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Composers are famously isolated creatures who treasure solitude, and not without good reason.

It is often only in quiet moments that a composer can channel those internal and external muses that the rest of us are too busy to hear. Mozart is reported to have said, “When I am, [completely by] myself, entirely alone — it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

But in the age of glowing screens in your pocket calling for attention, contemporary composers have to navigate modern conveniences that bring both welcome connectivity and unwanted distraction.

“I feel like it's a nuisance that I'm always trying to get away from,” said Nathaniel Stookey at the Meet the Composers forum in the first weekend of the Cabrillo Festival. “I have gone to all kinds of lengths to wall myself off from the Internet like working places with no Wi-Fi.”

Stookey, speaking alongside Marin Alsop and fellow composers, said he’s even gone so far as setting complex parental controls on his own computer to try and slow down the magnetic online lure of the web.

Meet The Composers
From left: Nathaniel Stookey, David T. Little, Marin Alsop, Huang Ruo, 
Sebastian Currier and Johnathan Newman at the Meet The Composers 
Forum at the 2015 Cabrillo Festival. Photo by R.R. Jones and courtesy
of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. 

“I'm sure there are positive aspects, but for me, it's just like being hunted,” he said. “It's addictive for me.”

Composer Huang Ruo said he sees both benefits and disadvantages in composing in the age of the Internet.

“It's great to keep updated with the world today. As a composer, you can not totally cut off from society, because whatever inspiration we have came from society,” said Ruo. “But when I compose, I prefer to not have access to the Internet or email.”

Ruo said he tries for solitude as much as possible, even preferring not to have any later appointments in the same day that his mind might drift to. Similarly, he tries not to listen to any other music or have any online distractions that might drown out the internal music he is working to find.

“If something gets into my head, it takes me a long time to get it out,” Ruo said.

Alsop said she has seen the benefits of unplugging for the young musicians participating in the Brussels-based Queen Elisabeth Competition where she has served as a judge.

“They have a compulsory brand new piece written for the contestants [to learn for the competition], and they're taken to a chapel out in the countryside where there is no Wi-Fi, and they have to hand in their phones so that they have no devices, whatsoever,” she said.

Alsop sees the contestants at the beginning and end of the five days they have to learn the piece at the chapel. At first, she said many of the contestants seemed to be having digital withdrawal. By the end, they were thriving. But beyond distraction, Alsop said that she’s seen constant connectivity create unhealthy competitions for young artists who compare themselves to their peer’s carefully curated, online personas.

“It can create this kind of competition that is a little insane, at least for conductors,” Alsop said. “Suddenly one person gets a job and everybody freaks out, I find it so incredibly unhealthy. I managed to become successful just because I didn't know what anybody else was doing. I feel like it's so invasive. I tell [young conductors], don't check these things.”

Composer David T. Little said he has to stay disciplined to avoid checking Facebook every 10 minutes, but for him, the Internet proves to be a valuable tool while composing.

“For me, it's just an immense resource to be able to learn new things,” Little said. “I'll be working on a piece and say, ‘Oh, there's this interesting thing [in another composer’s piece]. Can I find his or her piece on line?’ And most often I can and learn from it. Then I can take whatever I wanted to take from that and try to work it into a piece in my own way.”

Each of the composers at the Meet the Composer forum said they had to learn how to balance the digital era in their own way while they work.

Composer Johnathan Newman said that the Internet just allows modern composers to do the things they did previously, faster — like looking up scores from other composers to understand what is happening musically. Likewise, Sebastian Currier said he views the Internet more as a boon than a disruption to his work.

“It is an available resource to check stuff, and I'm not really prone to the addiction part,” Currier said.

“Oh, quit bragging,” Alsop replied.

BSO writer-in-residence Ricky O’Bannon is blogging from the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the two-week festival in Santa Cruz, California dedicated to the performance  of new classical music by living composers. BSO Music Director Marin Alsop has served as the festival's music director for the past 24 years.