Friday, July 31, 2015

What It Takes

As the summer days quickly pass away, I’m beginning to accept the inevitability that a new academic year will soon arrive. It won’t be long before I find myself standing in a classroom filled with young composers trying to help them master their craft, find their respective artistic voices and establish meaningful careers. In gathering my thoughts on how to once again approach these topics, there are two events that provide me some direction.

The first event was a conversation I had with a graduating composition student this past spring. For a final lesson, this student simply wanted to spend some time over coffee talking about what comes next. The conversation began with a simple question: “How do you know if you are successful?”

The second event was actually a series of short trips. This summer, my wife, daughter and I made several college visitations. My daughter, a rising high school senior, is interested in pursuing a career in Musical Theater. This desire is at least as daunting as my own desire was at her age to become a composer – perhaps more so. I can certainly relate to being strongly drawn to an artistic field that is ruthlessly competitive and offers little in the way of financial security. The administrators of the various musical theater programs we visited all spoke about the admission requirements and, more importantly, how their respective degrees would aid our young performer in getting on Broadway. Listening to these administrators, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the basic points in their respective conversations were very similar to the response I gave to my graduating composition student. The necessary tools for achieving success, it seems, may be the same irrespective of discipline. 

After thinking a bit more about the similarities between my conversation with a student and an administrator’s conversation with my daughter, I believe there are four major components to a successful professional career:

1. Talent

Whatever talent I may have is made to look better by
surrounding myself with super talented folks like
DJ/Composer Jennifer Mitchell (L) and Conductor
Georgia Ekonomou (C) - Photo taken after the premiere of my
commissioned work, "Eyes Wide Open" - April 27, 2015
Whether it is a composer holding a fistful of commissions or a Broadway actor holding an Equity Card and a contract for a long-running show, talent is the first and primary component for anyone who wants to be successful in the Arts. Sadly, this is the one component that no one can simply acquire via education and hard work. One is either born with the necessary creative aptitude or one is not. I love baseball, but no amount of wishing or training would have ever allowed me to throw a 95 mile-an-hour fastball. Possessing innate talent, however, certainly does not guarantee success. It is simply the prerequisite that allows one in the door. It’s not even enough to have the talent and the desire to develop one’s gifts.

2. “I can’t not do this.”

Recent performance of my "Long
Journey Home" given by the Lake
Superior Chamber Orchestra. 
I believe that a successful artist must be absolutely compelled to engage in their discipline. When I was a senior in high school, I was briefly torn between pursuing a degree in music composition and another field outside of music altogether. As I contemplated entering the non-musical field, I found my mind constantly devising ways that I would still be able to compose. It soon became apparent to me that I was going to find a way to write music no matter what the “day job” might be. For me, composing music is not just an enjoyable activity; it is as necessary as food and drink. It’s irrelevant whether I enjoy or desire certain foods. I am absolutely compelled to nourish my body or perish. While it may sound a bit dramatic, the creative drive approaches that level of importance for a successful professional artist.

Often, students receive the advice to “do what you love.” This is not entirely accurate. There are many times that I agonize over a piece of music I am writing. In those times, I can promise that am not experiencing joy or doing “what I love.” In fact, sometimes, I actually hate the drudgery of the process. However, I simply cannot not compose. This is different than “wanting” to compose. Despite creative agony, societal indifference to my endeavors and low pay, I nevertheless continue to write music anyway. There are joyful payoffs to be sure. However, my engagement in the field runs far deeper than simply “doing what I love.” I have always been driven to hone any talent I was given at birth and develop it to its full potential. This drive gives me the strength to make the considerable sacrifices necessary for a successful professional career.

3. Thick Skin

For every great opportunity like this, there
are many rejection letters!
Many people think that being an artist means one is “sensitive.” This may be true when discussing a person’s relationship to the natural world, the world of ideas or the creative process. However, artists cannot harbor for long any sensitivity about their personal successes or failures with respect to their work. I’ve written about rejection before in this blog. It’s never easy, of course, to get the word that your work has been passed over. However, it is a fact that there are far more failures than successes in the careers of most artists. This is certainly true for an endeavor as esoteric as contemporary classical music composition. Most professional composers do not receive major commissions, grants, prizes, recordings and stellar professional performances of their music on a regular basis.  Often, it seems that success is only an occasional visitor making brief appearances in the life of the composer while rejection is a constant and unwanted companion. So how does one push onward in the face of seemingly constant disappointment? In addition to the drive to create (described above) I believe it’s important to also perform a bit of a personal and honest artistic inventory:
  • Do I truly have the talent?
  • Sure, my family and close friends may think I’m the next Beethoven but what outside objective validation from a broad group of professionals in my field (teachers, performers, music critics, presenters, conductors, etc.) attests that I do, indeed, possess the basic tools?
  • What is my level of commitment?
  • Do I view my art as a hobby or side interest?
  • Do I have a job outside of my creative pursuit that prohibits my constant and uninterrupted pursuit of artistic expression?
  • What am I prepared to sacrifice for my art?

Honest answers to these questions will help determine an artist’s level of commitment. This honest inventory will also lead naturally to either the formation of a thick skin or to a realization that a professional career in the arts is not one’s true path in life. Rejection may always hurt, but that is just one of the many sacrifices an artist makes. Peer review of work can be a subjective process but it never hurts to also acknowledge that there is always someone more talented out there. A better response to rejection should be, “What am I prepared to do now?” I also find it helpful to remember a famous quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

4. There is No Plan B

Even if one has the necessary talent, the relentless drive to create and a thick skin there is one last component that most successful professional artists must have: no Plan B. One of the consistent takeaways my daughter heard in her college visitations was that to be successful in the audition process, a person must be all the way in. There is no dipping in a toe or easing slowly into the water. There is no hedging of bets and keeping several disparate irons in the fire – just in case. A successful artist never had a Plan B because it simply never occurred to them that they would not be successful.

The wonderfully talented students of the  Paideia Chamber
Orchestra rehearsing
 for the premiere of my piece,
"Eyes Wide Open" this past April.
In presenting these four components to success, I stress that I am speaking of what I believe it takes to be successful in a professional career. I’m speaking to those who forsake a “regular” life in favor of pursuing their art exclusively as their primary vocation. I do not mean to suggest that only professionals should engage in art or that the Arts should only be taught in rarified Ivory Towers for the Gifted. Quite the contrary! I believe many people are born with various artistic talents and gifts. They use these gifts as an integral part of their non-artistic vocations or contribute to the general health of artistic expression in various non-professional or semi-professional settings within their respective communities. They may just simply love and support the Arts. For these reasons, and for the general health of a civilized society, I believe a vibrant Arts education is essential for everyone. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

A tangible measure of success - Athanasios Zervos performs
my "Tonoi X" for solo soprano sax at the  17th World Saxophone
Congress – Strasbourg, France • July 10, 2015
What separates successful professional artists are the levels of commitment and sacrifice they are willing – no, compelled – to give to their art. Such commitment will usually result in some tangible measurement of success. Ultimately, there is also another way that I think any artist can be reasonably sure of true success: there must constantly be an acceptable dissatisfaction with one’s career. Acceptable dissatisfaction never falls into self-pity, envy or jealousy. For the composer, being acceptably dissatisfied with a career simply is the grateful recognition of past successes (no matter how meager) and a belief that the next piece will be better; that the next composition will somehow do a better job of articulating a personal artistic voice.

Despite what a trophy case may or may not reveal, I believe that true success is the result of talent, hard work, a thick skin and a single-minded devotion to the creation of art. Given this foundation, how did I answer my graduating student when I was asked, “How do you know if you are successful?”

I am successful so long as I remain grateful for my gifts, confident in my abilities, diligent in my work ethic, unconcerned with comparing myself to others and realize that there is always much to learn and more room to grow. The rest always takes care of itself.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Three Ways To Escape A Cul-de-sac

I live on a cul-de-sac in a relatively quiet northeast suburb of Atlanta. It’s a lovely little section of the street; quiet and safe from this city’s raging traffic (attributes that were especially important when my children were small). Besides its practical benefits, I’ve always preferred a cul-de-sac to a road that abruptly reaches a dead end. The design just strikes me as a more thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing way to end a street.

However, whether it’s a circle or a sudden dead end, the road is still going nowhere.

For the past few months I have been thinking about how my creative life resembles a cul-de-sac. As a composer, being creative is a prerequisite for success. However, as a composer working in academia, I often find that my creativity is rerouted. Instead of composing new music, I find that I use my creative muscle more often in service of committee work or in solving petty office politics. After awhile, I find that being creative in this manner is akin to driving around a cul-de-sac. There is the illusion of forward progress but I’m not really getting anywhere.

Unlike real cul-de-sacs, creative dead-ends are harder to escape. The obligations of the academic life obscure the exit. Because I must exercise my creativity everyday, I am lulled into the aesthetically pleasing circle of the cul-de-sac and tricked into thinking that I am being inventive or, at the very least, productive in some menial way. However, this is not the kind of creativity I signed up for at the conservatory. 

Given the realities of my situation, it becomes important for me to constantly be on the lookout for exit routes from the circuitous path I sometimes follow. Exit routes are usually always there – it’s just a matter of recognizing them. While there may be others, I have found that there are usually three big activities that serve as exits from the cul-de-sac.

1. Surround yourself with inspiring people.

My epic lunch with some fabulous composers.
(L-R: Alvin Singleton, Alex Shapiro,
yours truly & Carman Moore)
If the bulk of your interactions are with others who are trapped in the same cul-de-sac with you, it’s easy to descend into bitterness and endless reflection of every nuance found along the never-ending path of the circle. I was recently reminded how important it is to make contact with those who are outside that environment. A few weeks ago, I went on a business trip to New York City teaching a master class at New York University and attending a meeting of a board I sit on. My master class and board meeting were separated by a day. Therefore, I took advantage of the time to schedule a lunch on the off day with some wonderful composer colleagues who I had not seen in some time. Originally scheduled as a long 90-minute lunch, our time morphed into an epic five and a half hour reunion. Lunch spilled over into dessert then spilled over again into afternoon cocktails. The conversation had nothing to do with committee reports, office politics or any other non-artistic minutia. We talked, laughed and engaged in ideas that covered topics as broad as the art form we all work within. Five and half hours may seem like a very long time to sit in conversation with anyone about anything. However, nourished with such great artistic discourse, I felt that I had only been with my friends for minutes – not hours. The cul-de-sac of dreary academic work was but a distant memory. After it was over, rather than feeling exhausted and “talked out,” I felt light and very energetic.

Interactions, such as the unique lunch I had in New York, are a fantastic way to escape the cul-de-sac. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to be in the company of those that will inspire me both intellectually as well as artistically.

2. Encounter great Art.

While trudging along the cul-de-sac, it is easy to become fatigued. I sometimes find myself opting to stay at home and regroup rather than attend a concert. As soon as this happens, I know that I have fallen into the trap. Sometimes it takes effort to get off the couch and encounter great Art – especially after a long day of paper pushing. However, the rewards of making this effort are well worth it as I discovered on that same trip to New York a few weeks ago.

It was bitterly cold the day of my insanely long lunch with friends. As we sat and talked throughout the afternoon, temperatures descended into the 20’s and at least five inches of snow blanketed the urban landscape. It so happened that there was a concert of contemporary music taking place that same night up at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Given that I was at Lincoln Center and given the bitter cold, the trek up to Columbia University seemed formidable. It would have been much easier to hail a cab and get back to my hotel on the East side. Yet, I had been very inspired by my conversations during the afternoon and decided to attend the concert despite my longing for a warm drink and soft bed. I’m so very glad I took the time and made the effort to go. The concert was one of the Composer Portrait concerts given at the Miller Theatre focusing on the work of a single composer. That evening, the famed JACK String Quartet and the wonderful Third Coast Percussion Ensemble from Chicago were on hand to perform the music of the great American composer, Augusta Read Thomas. In the same way that the sparking conversation with brilliant composers invigorated me, I was likewise inspired by the superbly performed work of this extraordinary composer. As the exquisite music washed over me, I again felt the cares of my academic life fade into almost non-existence.

That concert reminded me of the power of music and that attending such events – especially when I don’t feel like it - is another critically important exit route from the cul-de-sac.

3. Just work.

Evidence that I can, on occasion,
focus on real work: my newly completed
work for string orchestra and D.J.
When I surround myself with inspiring people and regularly encounter great Art, I find that it becomes easier to discern what obligations can bind me to the drudgery of the cul-de-sac and away from my true work: the creation of new music and contributing to the artistic expression of my time. Once I can make the distinction between my true work and my obligations, a balanced perspective begins to develop. I know that I must duck into the cul-de-sac for necessary tasks. However, this is simply an obligatory tangent. Once completed, the tasks of the cul-de-sac can be released and I am free to exit from that little circle – despite its aesthetically appealing nature.

Creating Art and dealing with all the impediments associated with this monumental endeavor is hard work. It’s much easier to craft a long report for a committee than to write a single good musical phrase. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time draping unnecessary weights upon myself; to fool myself into thinking I am productive. The reality is I just need to work on what’s really important. In the end, it is not the cul-de-sac that ensnares me but I who trap myself. Hiding behind obligations associated with an academic appointment is no excuse. Surrounding myself with great people and great Art gives me the strength to properly order my priorities. It also guides me towards a path of focusing on the work I know to be important in my life.

Now, that’s a road going somewhere.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Coda & Prelude

I have arrived at a familiar annual benchmark: the beginning of a new calendar year. With the turning of a page in the calendar and a few days of rest between semesters, I can’t help but sift through the remnants of 2014 before plunging fully into this new year.

The back half of 2014 was certainly dominated, at least within the confines of this blog, by the lockout of the Atlanta Symphony musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) board. A few weeks after my last blog post in October, a resolution to this painful start to the symphony’s 70th season was reached. As far as I can tell, the bleeding has been stopped and healing has begun. The musicians agreed to a new four-year contract and on November 13, 2014, the orchestra was back in business with Maestro Robert Spano leading the the symphony and the ASO Chorus in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. I was on hand the next week (November 22) to hear performances of Debussy’s Première rhapsody (featuring principal clarinetist Laura Ardan), Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and the Symphony No. 3 by Atlanta based composer Richard Prior. The symphony was still using many subs as many of the regular ASO members had not yet returned from out of town gigs they had accepted during the lockout. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Symphony Hall was electric, The orchestra gave a heartfelt and wondrously musical performance and sounded as though much of the rust accumulated by weeks of walking a picket line instead of playing concerts had been shaken off. What struck me about the program selection was that it seemed to be a microcosm of everything that this orchestra does best. It was a concert that first featured a truly wonderful soloist from the very ranks of the ensemble itself. I have had the very good fortune of working with Laura Ardan on several projects in the past and know from personal experience that she is an exceptional artist. It was great to be reminded that this ensemble is comprised of many such exceptional artists throughout. The concert also spotlighted a relatively new composition. The programming of contemporary orchestral music has long been a hallmark of Robert Spano’s tenure at the helm of the orchestra. As a composer, I have always  admired this significant facet of the orchestra’s artistic vision. Finally, the concert reminded us all once again that the ASO can deftly move from the contemporary to convincing and riveting presentations of some of the greatest works of Western Civilization as exemplified by Beethoven’s fifth symphony. 

As good as it was to be back in Symphony Hall and hearing great music being performed by an elite orchestra, I still could not shake some troubling thoughts. First, the newly inked four-year deal will not guarantee that musician salaries will return to pre-2011 levels or even reach those levels by the end of the contract period. Second, in addition to other concessions, health insurance costs for the players have also gone up. Finally, there are still many questions surrounding the finances of the WAC and how it allocates funding to the symphony. Despite these shortcomings, the musicians did win one significant victory. The WAC board had pushed hard to dictate the size of the orchestra. This was an egregious demand and ultimately, the line in the sand that the players would not cross. The new contract stipulates that the compliment of the orchestra will grow back to near its pre-2011 level of 95 players. While this is still smaller than other major symphony orchestras, the restoration of performers nevertheless allows the group to remain at the status of a top tier professional orchestra. 

So if I examine the glass as half full, the orchestra emerged from an acrimonious stand-off with administrators and won a hard fought victory over the size of the ensemble; a critical component to maintaining artistic integrity. Without this victory, the ASO would have been reduced to a regional training orchestra and lose its luster as one of the finest orchestras in the country. If, on the other hand, I look at the glass as half empty, I see a struggle that resulted in lower pay and higher insurance costs for the musicians and a battle that merely returns the group (almost) to where it was back in 2011 in four years time. Then there is the WAC board. It still calls the shots for the orchestra and its chairman, Douglas Hertz famously described the symphony supporters and musicians as “crazy people” ( I can’t help but be nervous about what lurks ahead in four years when this contract ends.

Still, things could have turned out much, much worse. The ASO musicians as well as the musical soul of the city of Atlanta have been spared. I choose, therefore, to look at the glass as very much half full.

My first film credit!
This goes for 2014 in my personal corner of Atlanta as well. Aside from blogging about the ASO lockout, I spent my year writing music for wonderful musicians, receiving performances at national and international festivals and conferences and even having the great fortune of seeing a commercial film featuring my first significant film score widely released. Yet, I can’t help but ask myself some honest questions. Should I have written more music? Received more performances? Generally, been more active? 

The honest answer is yes. I should have done more. That’s why, as I shift my attention from the year now gone and look forward, I am excited by my upcoming commissions, opportunities and scheduled performances of my work. With the lockout of the ASO resolved, I somehow feel as though the creative environment in Atlanta is more secure, at least for the time being. With the musicians back at work, it’s time for me to do the same. The Holidays are over, 2014 is in the books and the manuscript paper is empty!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Walkin’ the Walk

There’s an old expression: it’s not enough to “talk the talk,” one must also “walk the walk.” On Friday, October 10, 2014, student composers and performers from the Georgia State University School of Music did just that. Having heard about the lockout of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center board, the students decided that simply talking about the injustice among themselves and via social media channels was simply not enough. So on that beautiful, sunny afternoon, they took to Woodruff Park and the streets of downtown Atlanta with the purpose of drawing attention to the very damaging lockout, supporting the musicians of the orchestra and calling for change. For a solid hour they put on an amazing concert of improvised performances and demonstrated with homemade signs their support for the orchestra musicians. It was real old-fashioned, grassroots activism and it was a joy to behold. 

As a composer and longtime member of the Atlanta musical community, my outrage over the state of affairs regarding the Atlanta Symphony’s current situation is understandable. However, students have many issues tugging at their time. They can be forgiven for sometimes not realizing that a particular moment in time is significant or, for that matter, even relevant to them. This is what made last Friday’s event all the more special for me. Here were young people fired up and enthusiastically taking time away from studies and their own busy schedules to support a cause bigger than themselves. As a friend to many musicians in the orchestra, a supporter of the symphony musicians and a performer myself, it was very gratifying to witness this outpouring of energy. As a teacher, watching the students and observing their passion for the symphony made me very proud indeed.

I am, however, above all else, a composer. Therefore I couldn’t help but listen to the actual music being created on the fly that afternoon. Sometimes silly, sometimes intensely rhythmic, the “piece” being created by student composers and student performers alike ebbed and flowed with various emotions during the 60 minute performance. What struck me however was the very honest music making taking place. I don’t think these students, many of whom had never really improvised this long in public before, could have maintained such energy without truly believing in the cause that drew them together that afternoon. This observation was confirmed for me by hearing the finale of their improvised concert: student composers and performers together locked arm in arm singing a cappella the words “Save Our Symphony.” At that moment, the music turned from rollicking improvisation to a heartfelt anthem.

I doubt I could have composed anything more powerful.

Below are more photos and a video from the event: