A photograph of Errollyn Wallen. She is holding a microphone.

Becoming a Composer: a review

4/5

When a successful composer or songwriter writes a book about their journey, it rarely provides insight into their craft: they tend to be just anecdotes and stories. Intriguing, yes, but we don’t need another examination of the artistic mindset. So, the promise of a book that will give the reader a leg-up to hop over the wall and demystify the guarded process is compelling. This memoir isn’t just about Errollyn Wallen’s journey from toured beginnings to international success but a glimpse into how a composer’s mind works and how she experiences the world around her. 

Although the book is called Becoming a Composer, it is not structured like a typical memoir. Instead, it leans towards the lyric essay form, with a patchwork quilt of essays, poems, diaries, and notes, beautifully woven together through movements of association rather than a linear narrative. While the fluid approach to form makes the reader work harder, it is worth it. It becomes a vivid demonstration of the creative process, which is fragmented by nature. A joined-up version of this story wouldn’t be true to how Wallen sees the world. 

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke famously writes, “If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing…then you are a writer.” Creativity isn’t something you can just wake up one day and decide to do. As Wallen puts it, “Composing found me. It crept up on me and tapped me on the shoulder, tackled me to the ground and wouldn’t let me out of its grasp”. At the age of nine, Wallen tells her uncle Arthur she has “all these sounds in my head” but doesn’t know what to do with them. In what feels reminiscent of Rilke, he suggests – perhaps she was a composer. 

There is a theory that the most successful people also tend to come from some of the hardest beginnings. In this, Wallen is no exception. Her birth parents left her and her siblings with her uncle and his wife when they moved to New York, which by today’s standard would make Wallen care experienced. This home life was far from paradise. Some of the most traumatic memories from her childhood are told in the third person. This subtle shift in perspective not only amplifies the powerful nature of the scenes but also reveals the distance Wallen keeps that part of her life. 

Wallen has “often longed to demystify the act composing process”. Therefore, she goes to great lengths to ensure the book is accessible to everyone, whether they have a  background in music or not, consciously removing any ‘shop-talk’ and assumptions. Her ability to articulate her process and mind is one of the book’s best features. The most thought-provoking passage is the chapter, “Intuition”: “Knowing whether a piece is right or wrong, knowing when a piece is of work is finished or needs revisiting. Knowing when the joins don’t join”. She details how trusting her intuition is crucial to her process. “I feel things before I understand them. I walk towards a sound before I can hear it. I can know what a work is before I find the notes.”

Her use of diary entries gives the best glimpse into the act of composing and the anxieties that go with it. From needing to enter deadline mode as “time was running out” to the bare struggles of “jury duty” and “feet stuck in the mud”. 

The creative fragility is relentless throughout the book. But the reader is invited to ‘dip in and out’, similar to Wallen when composing a piece of music. This is the most effective way to absorb the content. Like many of Wallen’s compositions, this book is bold and unconventional but is rooted in its firm voice that delivers on its promises with devasting effect. Read this book and be taken inside the mind of a composer and experience the world through their ears.

Image credit: Photo by Allan J. Cronin, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped from original.