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 unemotional) form of representing an external influence, or c) a part of a wider package (i.e. film music, games music). How much "c" is for one's self is very circumstance dependant though.
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 for me not to be be drawn into the artists' self-expression BUT perhaps this is as much down to the lyrics and their historical context as 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 that there is no such form as objective expression so every means of expression by nature is subjective (Essay 8). 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 myself, self-expression is important. I often come up with musical ideas when I'm angry, interested, intrigued, at a crossroads or happy (category a). If I'm not feeling anything in particular I may search further afield for inspiration to find something to express (category b).
Once any monetary or moral obligations are removed a much clearer view of artistic expression arises. We are able to create to express an emotion (category a), represent an external influence (category b) or collaborate alongside another artform (category c). Many composers these days are actually in the position of not writing for monetary influence by default, purely due to there being no budget (and, at some point one has to accept that it's better to be composing and developing than just sitting around waiting for a budget to appear).
Ignoring the real-life financial issues surrounding these position, we are in many ways lucky to be in this position and to be able to use music as a means of expression. Others express themselves through socialising, going the gym or through shopping and each is equally valid. It's important to value that we have music/art as our outlet, and, as such, we should value these gifts (whether we approve of their work or not). If we enjoy another composer's music let them know; if we don't, let us discuss and debate. Whilst we should all take our music/art seriously, let’s also keep what we have in perspective and enjoy the gifts that we as composers are so lucky to be able to use and develop in our lives.