Composing is a strange game. In my opinion, composing for one's self (by which I mean, not influenced by hitting certain criteria for monetary or moral obligation) falls into one of three categories: a) a means of emotional self-expression, b) an emotional (or perhaps even unemotional) form of representation of an external influence, or c) a part of a wider package (i.e. film music, games music) adding an extra dimension (though how much this is for one's self is very circumstance and team specific).
In 1777, Mozart wrote in a letter to his father “I cannot write in verse, for I am no poet. I cannot arrange the parts of speech with such art as to produce effects of light and shade, for I am no painter. Even by signs and gestures I cannot express my thoughts and feelings, for I am no dancer. But I can do so by means of sounds, for I am a musician." (Spaethling, R: Mozart’s letters, Mozart’s life, Faber and Faber, 2004). This, however, still leaves the question as to whether he is referring to music as an emotional or unemotional form of expression (with the further question of whether this is a means of self-expression or merely a means of expressing something external) . Most likely each of his works finds itself in a different one of my proposed categories with his operas dancing between all three.
On his Piano Concerto in G, Maurice Ravel said “The G major Concerto took two years of work…The opening theme came to me (very quickly)… The work of chiselling then began. We've gone past the days when the composer was thought of as being struck by inspiration…Writing music is 75% an intellectual activity.”
When I listen to songs like Is it because I’m black? (Syl Johnson), The Sky is Crying (Elmore James) and I’d rather go blind (Etta James) it’s impossible (I think) to be be drawn into the artist’s self-expression BUT perhaps this is as much, if not more, down to the lyrics and their historical context than the music. It is interesting, even with these examples, to listen to different artists’ versions of the same songs – this alone displays how the perceived meaning and angle can change from one performer to another.
Charles Ives is perhaps a good example of someone who was able to write as a means of self-expression due to his career in insurance and hence not always relying on a musical income (in his words – not letting his family “starve on his dissonances”). He actually put forward the idea in his Essay 8 that there is no such form as objective expression so every means of expression by nature is subjective. He stated that on leaving his church music position “I seem to have worked with more natural freedom, when I knew that the music was not going to be played before the public, or rather before people who couldn't get out from under, as in the case of a church congregation” (Swafford, J: Charles Ives: A life with music, W.W.Norton and Company, 1998).
For me personally, self-expression is important. I write music when I'm angry, interested, intrigued, at a crossroads, and occasionally happy – category a. If I'm not feeling anything in particular I'll search further afield for inspiration and then hopefully find something I want to express within that (category b). (As a side note I would have no objection to more money coming into my composition world.
Once any monetary or moral obligations are removed (i.e. when we are writing purely from our own personal motivation) a much clearer view of artistic expression arises. We are then able to then express an emotion (category a), produce a representation of an external source (category b) or work (in this sense in a truly collaborative respect) alongside another artform (category c). Many composers these days are actually in this (in many ways enviable) position by default, regardless of their talent, down to working with no budget (we can’t just sit around waiting for a budget to come in!). It is often said that the most succussful songs are those that others can relate to as if it were themselves so there is obviously some skill demanded to keep a highly personal situation somewhat universal (i.e. Yesterday: Hallelujah, I love her so....).
We are in many ways lucky to be in this position and to have music as a means of expression. Others express themselves through conversation, socializing, going the gym or through shopping and each is equally valid. We can express ourselves through music (writers through writing, dancers through dancer, actors through acting…). We must value this gift, and, as such, we must value each other’s gift (whether we approve of their work or not). Let’s value and enjoy this new music (and if we don’t let’s debate and put forward our issues out loud). Whilst taking it completely seriously, let’s laugh and enjoy the gift that we as composers are so privileged to be able to share together.