Music Well – Dosia McKay, Composer, Painter, Writer

Reflections on Art and Life

Guts – A Reflection on the Psychology of the Creative Process and Perseverance as an Artist

This essay was written in October of 2009 after I attended a masterclass with Phil Kline at the New York University. It was originally published on the NYU Composers’ Forum.


My well-educated, well-traveled, and well-read friend asked me once about the creative process of music composition: “So you just sit at the piano and kind of make it up as you go?” Yes, I thought to myself, that’s pretty much what happens, if you want the condensed version. And then I thought again: Wait a minute, that’s not what happens at all! I wish composing were that simple and that effortless. But it isn’t! It usually begins the same way, though – a blank piece of digital paper stares at me with disdain. “Who do you think you are to write even one worthy note?” it says. “I dare you to write one note.”

There is something unpretentious and vulnerable about Phil Kline. His wrinkled gray cotton shirt underneath a sport coat suggests someone who is not obsessed with seeking the approval of the fashion industry. I have a hunch that Phil Kline is not obsessed with seeking the approval of the high-brow music circles either. As I listen to him talk and play samples of his compositions, my initial impressions are confirmed.

Kline’s path to music composition began at an unconventional place. After earning a degree in English Literature from Columbia University, where he took a few music courses, Kline found himself immersed in the rock-and-roll scene in Ohio, playing 6 gigs a week, having memorized over 350 songs of such artists as the Beatles, the Eagles, Jimmie Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane.

As he recalls the sequence of events that eventually led him back to New York, I pick up on a certain, shall we say, “overtone” I hear in the background. It is rather faint, and it comes and goes, but my ears are now fully attentive because it is resonating with something I have been thinking about for a few weeks. I’m not sure what everyone else in class is hearing at this moment, but I hear Phil Kline speak about Guts.

[When I was at Columbia] “I was intimidated by the idea of composition although I always loved music,” says Kline. When he talks about the rock-and-roll days, he says, “I was not afraid of the stage anymore.” But then, when he describes his early days in New York, before he embarked on a composition career, when he was invited to perform a solo act, his initial thought was “the easiest thing to say would be that I couldn’t do it”. Before the performance, he was afraid to the point of thinking that he would die, but eventually the level of his anxiety hit a wall where he just didn’t have the energy to be afraid anymore. Although the initial reception of his music was very discouraging, with just a handful of people in the audience, Kline persevered. He summarizes this creative chapter of his life by saying: “I did crazy things in a $125 apartment in New York with no future.”

Yes, Mr. Kline, you have my full attention now. The blank piece of paper keeps staring at me with disdain. “I dare you to write even one worthy note.” My rigorous Polish conservatory training reminds me that the greatest composers are white dead men, that Bach had impeccable work ethic, that Mozart wrote most of his compositions in his head before he committed them to paper, that Beethoven was a master of motivic development, that Brahms, that Wagner, that Webern… I wish I had some Franco-Flemish genes in me.

Phil Kline is playing Kyrie from his album John the Revelator. His polyphony doesn’t follow “the rules”. A simple motive grows with minute embellishments of successive layers. The music intrigues me with its freshness and rawness, dare I say “purity”?

His Zippo songs, on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Kyrie, are equally daring. Although the lyrics were created during politically charged time of the Vietnam War, and the “poetry” of Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq War, I find that Kline’s setting of the song cycle is not politically preachy or soap-boxy. Kline elevated the immediate meaning of the lyric into an overarching common human experience such that the words are resonating with the audience today.

I’m looking at Phil Kline’s wrinkled gray cotton shirt and I’m beginning to understand that the craft of music composition is not so much about planning climaxes at the golden proportion ratio of 0.681 or making sure that the articulation for double basses takes the length of their bows into consideration. The art of composition is really about gutsiness and fearlessness. It’s about trusting your own instincts and following your own gut. It’s also about being kind to yourself and being the biggest fan of your music.

The first time Phil Kline performed his harmonica piece on stage with his 12 looping boom boxes people thought he was insane. But years later 35 cities around the world faithfully perform his Unsilent Night during the Christmas season. “I invent my own projects. I pitch something and then I want to talk myself out of it but I realize I have to do it. I commission my own works and I make my own opportunities. I make other people ask me”, says Kline. And that he does, with grants and awards to his credit from such institutions as the American Composers Forum, Mary Flagler Cary Trust, Meet The Composer, the New York State Council for the Arts, and the Virgil Thomson Foundation. “These days choosing such an insecure income source as music is in itself a revolutionary act. How much more strikingly can an intelligent person opt out of popular value systems? I do what I do because, really and truly, I need to”, says Kline.

I realize that fear and self-doubt accompanying creative efforts is a luxury and a nuisance I can’t afford anymore. I stare at the blank page but it is silent now. I think it is waiting in expectation of something new and fearless. Something gutsy and daring. Excuse me but I need to write it down.

©2009 Dosia McKay


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