Friday, August 29, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 6: It’s Not About You - It’s About What You Do

Sixth in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

In my previous post, I shared a not-so-secret desire that most composers possess: the longing to get their music “out there.” It’s not enough to merely write music. Having spent weeks, months or sometimes even years composing a new work, most composers are not content to simply sit alone and experience the fruit of their compositional efforts by listening to computer generated realizations of acoustic instruments. Even for purely electronic compositions, most of us want to share our art with others. Therefore, to varying degrees, composers are always on the lookout for more opportunities to write that next piece and get it performed in front of an audience. As mentioned last time, I just happen to have six strategies for getting my compositions “out there.” These are strategies that have helped me along the way. In last month's blog post, I wrote in some detail about the first three of these strategies. Once again, these first three - for those not scoring at home - are: 

1. write for your friends; 
2. students: your composition recital is not just a hoop; and 
3. send your scores out to as many opportunities as you can. 

There are an additional three actions that round out my top six strategies for getting one’s music performed. These strategies, however, are in my list due to an uncomfortable realization. It’s not about you - it’s about what you do. To paraphrase Officer Jim Malone (the character brilliantly portrayed by Sean Connery in Brian De Palma's 1987 film, The Untouchables): “You said you wanted to get your music performed. Do you really wanna get it performed? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do? ” 

Well, here is what I am prepared to do:

4. Think like a presenter.

A recent work that poses no major
logistical problems for presenters.
It takes a certain amount of hubris to be a composer. After all, a composer assumes that what has been written is so important that it warrants a group of strangers to leave their homes, deal with parking and other transportation issues, sometimes even part with money and then give up a portion of their lifespan in order to sit quietly and attentively listen. A composer also assumes that the music written is so compelling that it warrants a casual expectation that musicians will devote hours and hours of their time and energy to practicing the new work then give up an evening of their life to perform the music all for the perk of being grossly underpaid (if paid at all) for their trouble. Finally, the composer is often blissfully unconcerned with how a new piece might integrate with other works on a program or with any logistics associated with its presentation

Composers may not think this way consciously, of course. However, on some level, I must admit to having held each of these assumptions myself. Over the years, experience taught me that to truly get my music performed often, I had to lay aside many of these assumptions and selfish expectations. Once I began to understand that it is impossible for a composer to successfully (and consistently) receive performances without the help of others, I began to stop thinking exclusively of my own desires and began to take into account other factors. I stopped thinking exclusively as a composer and began also thinking like those upon whose help I depend to get my music heard.

First and foremost, a composer is dependent upon a presenter to program his or her music on a concert. The presenter could be a conductor trying to put together a program. The presenter could also just as easily be a performer or chamber ensemble. The presenter could even be another composer hosting a conference or festival and responsible for filling slots in a series of concerts. What are the issues that presenters commonly think about? 

Instrumentation and technical requirements. 

Are pieces easy to program or do they require a lot of extra work? Does the score call for instruments not readily accessible by the group? Are there lots of parts that require doubling? (If professional players are employed, doubling requirements result in higher fees and may even include additional cartage fees.) Are you using percussion? If so, does your score call for 27 different percussion instruments including a full set of timpani, chimes and every drum known to the civilized world? Who has to cart all that gear? How long is it going to take to set-up and tear-down? Beyond percussion, does the score call for an intricate technical set-up involving computers, proprietary software, effects processing, lights, the presence of audio engineers and hours of pre-concert set-up time? 

Or, are we talking about a simple woodwind quintet? 

When composing a new work, I try to always consider how my choices in writing might affect the decisions of future presenters. The more difficult I make it to perform a piece, the more likely a presenter might take a pass on my score. The music itself might be brilliant but the logistics necessary to perform the piece could be insurmountable for some presenters. Of course, there are many well-known composers out there with reputations for writing extremely difficult and technically demanding music. But for me, that’s the point. I am not well-known. I don’t have the luxury of fame. Fame in our field often removes shackles and allows a composer to do whatever he or she wants. Relative obscurity makes such demands a possible impediment to repeated performances. This does not mean that a composer must exclusively write technically and logistically simple music. It simply means that one should pay attention. Think about what a presenter has to do to mount a piece of music. It might behoove the less well-known composer, if possible, to present a musical idea in a simpler way as long as artistic integrity is not compromised

Duration of the piece. 

How long is the composition? Total duration often signals where a piece may be slotted in a program order. It is useful for a composer to imagine where a presenter might place a piece on a concert. Is the work 5 minutes or less? If so short, why even program it? Perhaps it would serve as a fanfare or small overture in relation to the other pieces on a concert. If so - market it that way. The current “Goldilocks” range for contemporary music is approximately 10 minutes in total duration. Most contests and score calls seek works of this time frame (give or take a couple of minutes). It's always handy to have a bunch of pieces with this duration in one’s catalog. A piece lasting over 15 minutes tends to be considered more of a major work. Given that most concerts contain well less than two full hours of actual music (not counting an intermission or set-up between pieces), a single piece lasting 15 minutes or longer could constitute 20% or more of the total music offered on one concert. Why would a presenter devote so much time on a program to just one composer? If you have won major prizes and enjoy high recognition in the field, it makes sense. If your awards are more modest and your visibility not quite as high, then a long piece might be a harder sell. 

Ensemble MD7. Grateful for their recent commission
& premiere of my music. Photo: Mira Herak Usenik
All bets are off for commissions, of course. I just completed a 20 minute commissioned work for a chamber group with a non-standard instrumentation. I was guaranteed not only a premiere (which occurred a few days ago as of this writing) but at least one subsequent performance as well. Since it was an international commission, I decided to pursue the opportunity. However, outside of this commissioning ensemble, I know, in my heart, that the future of this particular piece is uncertain. Nevertheless, I made the conscious decision to proceed with the work anyway. 

Making these types of decisions about a composition brings me to the fifth of my six strategies for getting music off the computer or desk and into the concert hall: think like an entrepreneur. 

But more on that in the next exciting installment of this nail-biting series! As always, if you find any of this useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here! 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 5: Getting Out There

Fifth in a series on the "business" of being a composer...

When I was a student, I thought the trickiest part of a composition career was learning my craft and navigating through my degree programs. As formidable as those endeavors seemed to be at the time, they pale before my continuing efforts to build a successful career as a professional composer. Like every creative artist, the composer has a deep desire to create Art and share it with an audience. In the pursuit of that lifelong endeavor, the real trick is to get that next performance, to obtain that next commission, to somehow - once again - have a composition heard by an audience or easily accessible via professional recordings. Never mind pushing oneself to the so-called “next level,” even merely sustaining a career takes considerable ongoing effort. While we all wish to make a comfortable living simply by composing Art Music, “success” in a composition career is rarely defined by income. While awards and accolades are one measurement of success, a better indicator for me is how visible composers are within the field and how widely their music is recorded and performed. Awards are subjective. For me, “success” is not driven solely by income statements and trophy cases but by how well I am able to participate in the cultural and artistic life of my community, my country….heck, even my planet!    

To achieve any modicum of success in sharing music with a wide audience, I believe a composer must work from a solid foundation as detailed in the previous entries in this series. After all, the music must be compelling in some way or why bother learning it or listening to it? Assuming one possesses the talent and the compelling voice, a big question yet remains. 

What do I need to do in order to get my music “out there?” 

This is the concern that seems to really preoccupy most composers. Just how does one go about getting more opportunities to write music and hear it performed? Well…this wouldn’t be much of a blog if I didn’t at least try to answer questions I pose. I have six strategies for getting compositions “out there” that have helped me along the way. To keep this post manageable, I’ll present the first three strategies here and the rest in the next entry to this blog.

1. Write for your friends.

Performer friends are always your best initial resource. This is true for the student composer as well as the graduate out in the world with some type of degree already hanging on the wall. While still a student, many of your classmates are performers who might be very willing to at least look over a piece. Also, the student friends you have today could become important professional colleagues and advocates in the future. When school days are behind you, friends are area professionals or (if you have landed a teaching position of some kind) faculty colleagues. 

Don't forget about the pro-am artists out there. These so-called “professional amateurs” are dedicated performers, often with high-level training and wonderful musicianship who have non-music or non-performance “day jobs.” Some may even have had past professional experience. Remember, many people probably regarded the composer Charles Ives as only an insurance agent during his lifetime. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Old & new friends: my pal, Jon Whitaker, fellow
trombonists Christian Paarup, Matthew Winter &
Russell Ballenger & the Mana Quartet  (Thomas Giles,
Michael Hernandez, Dannel Espinoza & Cole Belt.
Photo taken after their premiere of my work,
"eight shades of metal."
Whether your relationship is with a classmate, colleague or pro-am artist, it is important to be a friend yourself. Don’t be “that” composer who only selfishly views performers as objects; means to an end. Develop real relationships with people. Attend your friends’ concerts and recitals. Support their artistic expression in any way you can. When you feel comfortable enough to ask them to look at your music  - or better yet, if they ask you for a piece - collaborate with them. Dedicating a composition to performers is only the very least you can do. Besides just typing in a dedication, allow your friends input into the creation of the work. Ask questions. It’s been my experience that performers know much more about their respective instruments than can be gleaned from an orchestration textbook. They also usually enjoy sharing their knowledge and expertise. 

Most importantly, respond to their concerns and suggestions. This doesn’t mean you need to check your artistic integrity at the door simply to snag a performer. If your music is unidiomatic for the instrument or just plain near impossible to play, work with the performer. Explain your motivations and compositional choices. The performer may come up with a solution that works better idiomatically and still fulfills your artistic vision. Be open and flexible to that possibility. If, however, the music demands to be performed exactly the way you have presented it, I have found that performers will nevertheless be happy to try and make your music work to the best of their ability. Your openness, however, to their concerns and explanations as to why you might need to stick to your guns in a particular situation will be met with much more acceptance when the player is consulted and respected.

Finally, your music notation must be immaculate. The time and effort you put into preparing a gorgeous and clearly notated part gives the performer a good indication of your level of professionalism, how seriously you take your creative activity and how much you respect them. Great looking parts also save a lot of precious rehearsal time!

2. It’s not just a hoop.

This strategy is directed specifically to any composition students reading this blog. There are many maddening hoops that students must go through in order to earn their degrees. The higher the degree, the more onerous and sometimes more pointless the hoops become. A composition recital is not one of those hoops. Students who treat the recital as merely one more item to tick off their “to-do” list are missing an important opportunity. Unless you become truly “famous,” there will never be another time that an entire concert will be devoted exclusively to your music. So first and foremost, enjoy the event! However, in planning your recital, think carefully about how the pieces you write for a graduation requirement will still help you in the future. Create a diverse offering of compositions using as many different instrumentations and/or technologies as you can. I always tell my students that the real value of the recital is not the evening itself but the portfolio of scores with well rehearsed and performed recordings of the respective compositions that remain well after the applause has faded away. Spend the necessary time to organize the recital correctly. Don’t wait until the last minute to secure players or begin rehearsals. The documented recordings you get from the recital may well be the only recordings you will ever get of some of the pieces. These recordings are critical when sending pieces off to contests or other opportunities. As an example of how “student” pieces can be of importance later, I don’t need to go beyond my own catalog. Check out Three Gestures for Solo Cello or the mixed ensemble piece, Mnimosinon. These were both pieces written for my doctoral recital at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Due to good recordings from the recital, outstanding professional performers later became interested in performing the works and the pieces eventually found their way onto my debut recording, Aegean Counterpoint. If I had not taken the recital extremely seriously as important for my career (not just my degree), I may not have had the pieces for this recording.

3. The best cold calls are never really cold.

Any professional conductor or performer will tell you that possibly the least effective way to get them to perform your music is to send unsolicited scores. Most unsolicited scores either find their way to some out of the way stack of music in a closet or simply thrown out. Performers and conductors tend to work with composers they know and like on either a professional or personal level. Without this connection, the unsolicited score becomes a very hard sell. So how is a composer expected to get their music in front of new eyes and into new ears? When conductors and performers ask for scores, of course. And they ask for new music quite often. A quick perusal of The Composer’s Site alone will find nearly 300 listed opportunities for composers at any one time. I firmly believe that composers should take advantage of as many of these opportunities as possible on an ongoing basis. However, composers should also be aware that the very high odds are that most submissions will result in a rejection letter. I know a thing or two about those (see my blog from December 8, 2010, entitled “Dear Composer…”). The truth is, one can reasonably only expect to be successful or even moderately successful (coming in second, or getting the dreaded “Honorable Mention”) a small percentage of the time. Maybe I'm a masochist, but I have actually charted my success rate over the years. My submissions are selected or recognized about 10% of the time on average. Thus for every award listed in my C.V., there are nine rejection letters. If you wish to get your music “out there,” you must submit your work regularly. The more you submit, the greater your odds become of something positive happening. 

As a very personal aside, I also do not have a problem with opportunities that charge entry fees.  Many of my colleagues will no doubt disagree with this position. There are plenty of “free” submission calls out there but also a significant number that require an entrance fee. I am always prepared to spend a little for score calls. There are often legitimate reasons why an organization may need to charge an entry fee. The most reputable organizations often spell out what the fees cover. I enter fee based submissions on a case-by-case basis. If the entry fee seems reasonable, I pay it. If it it seems excessively high to me, I’ll take a pass. The comfort zone for payment will, of course, vary with composers and their personal situations. The point is, I do not automatically purge all fee based submission opportunities from consideration. Also remember, like many “free” app purchases on your phone, there can be “in-app” purchase requirements later. Some organizations sponsor free submission to opportunities but if a composer is selected, mandate that the composer join the organization to receive a performance. This usually entails  a year-long membership obligation and a membership fee. Other ensembles will not cover travel and lodging expenses for composers who must travel to hear a prize winning performance. Whether upfront or at the backend, composers should be prepared to pay something to submit works. Composers also need to  be prepared for disappointment much of the time. I haven’t met the successful composer yet who does not have trunks of rejection letters, multiple bruises to the ego in various stages of healing and some really thick skin.

Yet, when a submission is successful, it’s not just a new item to place in the C.V. The success of the submission usually results in an accompanying performance of pre-existing music or the opportunity to compose a new work for musicians who up until the time of the score call did not even know your name. Moreover, if you present yourself professionally and are able to start a relationship with the musicians involved in the initial score call, it can lead to additional opportunities in the future. Remember - writing for your friends is always the best way to go. These friends can be your school chums or are new faces met through a successful submission process. The rewards of success in a submission both in terms of the initial project and potential for future collaborations are so great that I believe they warrant frequent submissions to all opportunities. So one must submit, submit and submit again.

Composition students often complain to me that they cannot submit to various opportunities because they lack the proper pieces in their respective catalogs. I always remind them that their composition recitals are the perfect vehicle to remedy this situation. If, for example, a composer finds dozens of score calls for choral works but cannot enter due to the fact that he or she has never written for choir, let this be a significant factor in deciding what types of music to include on a recital. The recital is a requirement anyway. Let it work for your future career as well as your short term degree requirement needs. This strategy is critical while you are in school. Once out, unless a composer has a large catalog of diverse works, it becomes more difficult to take advantage of opportunities. I think it is a risky gamble to write a piece specifically for a contest. As mentioned earlier, the high odds are that you will not be successful. Then the piece written becomes orphaned and its chances of ever being heard diminish steadily over time. If you must write on spec for an opportunity, at least have a back-up plan for a performance of the work. Going back to the choral example, do you know a decent choir in your community that might be willing to perform the work? Do you have friends in the group that can advocate on your behalf? Can you secure a performance? If the answer is yes to these questions, proceed with the piece in confidence that your hard work will at the very least result in a performance and (hopefully) a decent recording that you can then use for future submission opportunities.

You may have noticed that the three strategies presented above deal mostly with relationships. Building and maintaining positive personal and professional relationships are absolutely critical for success in getting one’s music “out there.” A solid network of relationships is the result of nurturing existing friendships and making new friends via score calls. It doesn't come quickly. True long term success in the Arts is certainly not for the impatient or the insincere. In the end, like most things in life, "success" ultimately boils down to how we treat one another.

Next time, I’ll turn to my remaining three strategies: thinking like a presenter, thinking like an entrepreneur and becoming really visible in the field. I hope you’ll hang in there with me! As always, if you find any of this useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here! 

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 4: The Teacher After Your Teacher

Fourth in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

One of the scariest moments I ever faced as a composer occurred way back in the summer of 1992. I was working on a short virtuosic duo for bass clarinet & cello entitled Postscript and must confess from the outset to those yearning for a good adventure yarn that nothing really dramatic occurred during the actual composition of the work. Rather, the circumstances surrounding the writing of this particular piece were scary for me. The composition put me at a crossroads in my young career as I was trying out two things I had never done before. First, I decided to use a computer for the notation of the piece. Though it must seem incomprehensible to those younger composers out there reading this blog, there once was a time when composers wrote scores in pencil and then arduously copied the work over using pens, ink, rulers, vellum paper and a fairly robust amount of patience. Given the state of computers and music notation software in the late 20th Century, my trepidation should not seem too odd.

As nervous as I was to use the computer for the first time, there was a second circumstance that caused even greater unease and truly placed me at the crossroads in my career. In 1992, I had just completed my D.M.A. at the Cleveland Institute of Music under my extraordinary teacher and mentor, Donald Erb. It was the summer before I moved from Cleveland to Atlanta and began my first academic appointment. On my way out the door, I decided to write one more piece for the road. Thus, Postscript became the first really serious piece I composed completely on my own. Up until the writing of this duo, all my compositions and gone through the scrutiny of my teachers: Roger Hannay during my undergraduate studies and Donald Erb thereafter during most of my graduate work. As Postscript was my fist solo voyage as a composer, I was filled with burning questions: Was I ready to be my own teacher? Could I look critically at my own work the same way Erb or Hannay did? Would the piece be any good not having had a single lesson with a master composer while writing it?

Donald Erb (1927-2008)
Unlike the fear of using a computer, students today may still understand the unease of working alone for the first time. To address my fear while writing Postscript, I constantly tried to imagine what Erb would say about the piece. This was fairly easy at the time as the echo of my teacher’s voice had hardly faded from my ears, much less my memory. Time however can be a cruel companion in life. Over the years, it has become harder to easily remember everything I was taught. I am grateful that I at least paid very close attention during my lessons. This allowed me to retain many of the most important lessons Erb and Hannay had to teach. It has also been extremely helpful that I have become a composition teacher myself. Most of what my teachers taught me is still passed on to my students. However, if my memory still gets a little fuzzy, I simply play my teachers’ music and listen intently. Everyone knows the power of music to transport one back in time. Merely hearing my teachers’ music  again instantly brings me back to my lessons. Their voices and admonitions become fresh again.

As useful as it is to remember one’s training, however, I don’t think a composer should rely solely on ghosts from the past. In addition to remembering past teachers, I have also come to rely on a new composition teacher. This teacher can be brutally honest and dispassionate to a fault. If I pay attention to this new teacher as keenly as I did my former mentors, I find my professional career moving in a positive direction. If I ignore this teacher, I begin to stagnate.

This teacher is my curriculum vitae.

If you’ve read any other entries in this blog, you might immediately note that I often draw a big distinction between obligations and work. The true work of a composer is to write music. That’s it. Everything else is an obligation. Maintaining a current CV may seem like the quintessential obligation of a university professor. For the academic, the CV is a necessary tool for obtaining a university position and once secured, providing a formal record for evaluation. So why the emphasis on such a stodgy document?   

A recent performance of my work,
"Chasing Time." Always a good item to list in a CV. 
Simply put, the CV can be the warehouse wherein a creative artist stores the documentation of all facets of a career in one place. A comprehensive CV allows one to constantly take an inventory of a career. It’s the opportunity for evaluation that I find to be my best teacher. That’s why I believe the CV is important. It’s so important that I believe every composer should have one whether they teach for a living or not. It’s not the university administrator or search committee that is actually the most important reader of the C.V. The most important evaluator of my CV is me.

Another good CV entry: Composer
Athanasios Zervas and myself after
a neoPhonia Concert on March 25, 2014.
There are broad categories that all composition CVs have in common irrespective of format: a catalog of works, lists of awards, commissions, performances, recordings and reviews among others. How do these categories teach a composer anything? Let’s take the example of the first category usually found in a CV, a person’s education. What is the highest degree listed? What degree should be at the top? Many composers try to fill in DMA or Ph.D in that line. Why might this be a good idea? Is it absolutely necessary given one’s personal career goals? How you feel about that first category goes a long way towards answering where your energy should be spent. If teaching in academia is an important career objective, that top line needs to list a doctoral degree. If teaching in a university is not a priority, what’s the alternative game plan? Very few composers make it out there just by writing concert music. If created honestly, what is (and, importantly, is not) listed in a CV can be an good indicator of one’s career to date and its trajectory. Longing to fill deficiencies in education, a catalog of compositions as well as the aforementioned lists of awards, commissions, grants, recordings and reviews helps one to begin to prioritize. If you notice that you only have a few pieces in your catalog, get busy and start writing. If you lack  performances of your work, an impressive trophy case of awards, commissions or recordings (or anything else that may be important to you), then get busy submitting to or creating opportunities. When you do find opportunities but learn that they seem to consistently ask for works in genres you have never written for, check your CV and look at your catalog of works once again. It will teach you something. Note the deficiencies throughout this document and do something about them.

I’ll have more to say in the next blog entry in this series about strategies for submitting to and creating your own opportunities. For now, here are a three final thoughts about the C.V. itself:
  • Once you commit to creating a CV, research formats of similar documents by people you trust. These folks could include teachers, classmates or simply composers you admire. Click HERE for a peek at my CV. It’s not the way to format such a document by any means. I make it available here simply as a point of reference and a possible model to use when adapting a similar document to your specific needs. 
  • Make sure the CV is free of all superfluous material. One might not be able to define what “fluff” is in a CV, but everyone sure knows it when they see it. So there is no need to list your fast food retail experience in high-school, your Citizenship Award from elementary school or really anything that takes away from the focal point of the document: an honest presentation of your work as a composer. If you list as much information about work in another field (performance, music theory research, etc.), then the CV becomes confused. A reader may wonder, “Is this person a theorist, a composer or a performer? This person lists as many research papers as compositions. What is the priority?” If you seem to be going in many directions at once and not succeeding at the level you had hoped for in any one of them, an honest look at your CV may provide the reasons. A CV must have a central thrust. By focusing on the discipline you most want to highlight in the CV, you have answered an important question about your professional priorities. For example, when I went through this exercise, I learned that, despite my extensive performance background, what I really wanted to be was a composer who performs rather than a performer who composes. There is a very big difference in these two. One is not better than another, but they are distinct paths and require different priorities in life. You might experience a similar epiphany if you confront your CV honestly. 
  • Once you have created your CV and made sure that it is honest, accurate and free from all fluff, the document serves another important purpose. It becomes the platform from where you can launch a substantive and successful online presence. This is a topic for another (hopefully shorter) entry in this series! 

The road to presenting the “Outer Artist” then begins at home with the lowly curriculum vitae. Despite its stodgy name and academic baggage, it’s the first and maybe most important tool in the composer’s toolbox. It's also a great teacher!

As always, if you find anything of use in this article, or any of the others in this series, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 3: Multitasking

Third in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

It’s not uncommon for students to come into composition lessons brimming with ideas and music. This creative enthusiasm is, of course, most pronounced at the outset of a semester, well before the burdens of the average term begin to weigh a student down. As discussed at some length in my previous blog post, part of the reason that students begin to experience a let-down in creative activity is due to their failure in differentiating their “work” (i.e., composing) from their obligations. However, there is another factor that may contribute to the inevitable slow down of output. Simply put, students may be too discursive in their creative energy. Very often, students will bring in bits and pieces of several pieces they are working on: 10 measures of a string quartet here; a few bars of a piano sonata there; a diagram of the form for their proposed orchestra piece, etc. In showing me all these musical fragments, the student will express frustration in not knowing how to proceed or “being stuck” or even experiencing the dreaded “writer’s block.” Their frustration leads to questions such as, “How can I organize these ideas? How do I overcome this block?”

When thinking about how one writes music I usually do not focus on the actual creative act itself. For me, this is a mystery. It is something that is essentially unteachable. One moment there is an empty stave and the next, there are a series of notes; one carefully placed after another. Where did those notes come from? How were they selected? Why are they in that order? Do they have to be in that order? Why are those notes designated for those particular instruments or voices? How is it that one minute there is nothing and the next, music appears? How exactly did that happen?

These are questions I have a hard enough time trying to answer for myself let alone trying to answer for someone else. In fact, I would never try to answer for another composer. Once a series of notes is on the page, I can look at them; analyze them; rearrange them; and begin to discern a pattern. Once there are notes, I can help a student composer begin the process of refining his or her craft. But how to conjure the music up in the first place? As I’ve touched on in previous articles, creating something out of nothing requires a good imagination, the drive to communicate something, having something one feels is worthwhile to say in the first place and the skills to effectively translate ideas to someone else.

Every creative artist knows what I’m talking about when I say there is a very lonely moment early in the creative process where no one can help you. It’s the moment of the blank page. No one can give you creativity. No one can lend you talent or determination. No one can pop open your skull and pour in the imagination and experience you need to draw upon to create. A person is alone in this endeavor and absolutely alone at the moment of creation. This is where the “Inner Artist”dwells.

However, this series of articles concerns itself with the “Outer Artist.” So stipulating that I really can’t help someone be “creative,” let me circle back to the point of frustration expressed by student composers. How can they proceed when they are “stuck?” In these cases my advice to the student is always the same: “You cannot actively work on more than one piece at the same time.” Part of the frustration a composer feels may well stem from actively trying to compose several works simultaneously. Inevitably, a composer will begin to drift towards one piece over another. Seeing a look of disappointment in their eyes when I share this view with my students, I quickly add. “I want you to hear me clearly. I do think you can - and should - work on more than one piece at a time. You just cannot actively do so.”

So what’s the trick then? For me, it helps to consider that there are five distinct stages in music composition:
• an idea;
• active writing;
• notation/score & part preparation;
• rehearsal; and
• performance practice.

In the first stage, a composer is struck with an idea. It may be nothing more than the desire to create a work using a particular instrumentation. Perhaps the idea is to compose a piece for a friend. In my case, an idea is planted in me the moment person or ensemble commissions a new work. I have recently been commissioned to write works by several groups. For each one, my imagination immediately began working on basic ideas of shape, form, duration, timbral possibilities. I find myself shifting my thoughts from piece to piece; rolling ideas around in my mind like beautifully polished gems in my hands. Not a note has been written, and yet - at least imaginatively - I am already “composing.” My aural imagination works quickly, almost effortlessly, fueled by over 30 years of experience in composing, performing and listening. It is also fueled by a lifetime of reading, writing, drawing and viewing as well. The larger the aural imagination, the easier it is to “compose” in stage one.

Having developed my ideas internally, I find that when I move into stage two - active composing - the music seems to flow a bit easier. This is the stage where decisions about actual notes happen. It’s the active stage of writing music into blank music staves. Of course, the work does not always progress smoothly in this stage. I often have rolled up pieces of paper lying about my feet and a seemingly endless stack of sketches before working out exactly what I want to say. For me, this is the hardest stage. However, I can’t imagine how much more difficult the process would be if I had not had some initial ideas to prime the pump.

Once a piece is completed, I move into stage three: notation. This is a stage that seems foreign to many composers now because so many use a computer to compose music. I am just old enough to have begun my career before computer notation was viable. I learned all about the proper rules of notation from the master music calligrapher, Eric Benson, while a doctoral student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since all my compositions began as hand-written pencil manuscripts, it was simply part of the process to spend a great deal of time notating them by hand as well. Even when I moved away from inks and vellum paper and finally embraced computer notation, I never lost the sense that notation was a separate craft from active composition. To this day, most of my music is still hand-written. The advantage of treating notation as a separate activity is that it also serves as another stage in actually composing music. As I carefully notate a piece that has already been hand written, note by note I am essentially proofreading my work as well. Often during this process, significant alterations are made and mistakes are corrected. By making the piece better, I am still composing. For those students who actively write at the computer in stage two, I urge them not to worry too much about notational issues such as formatting pages, correcting weird looking articulations and phrases, etc. If they work at a computer, my advice is to try and write in a landscape view to escape the temptation of integrating format with active composing. Trying to notate while actively composing may slow down the creative process. Allowing for the luxury of a second pass through the piece, once fully written, to deal with proper notational issues provides the same opportunity I enjoy by going from hand-written score to computer notation.

Valuable rehearsal (composing) time! Yours truly pictured
at a neoPhonia dress rehearsal on Feb. 17, 2014. We were
working on "Cavafy Moods" by Yiorgos Vassilandonakis
premiered on Feb. 18, 2014.
Once a piece is finished and beautifully notated, the composition process is still not complete. I consider rehearsals to be a very valuable opportunity for refining a composition. It is so valuable that I consider it the fourth stage in the creative process. We all know how awful  a computer-generated rendition of acoustic music can sound. Therefore, even though a compeer may think he or she knows what an acoustic piece is going to sound like, a first rehearsal can still be surprising. It is in rehearsal that performers can (and should) be allowed to refine the music.  (Don’t worry about conductors. They will most definitely refine the music!) Most often it is dynamics that need to be adjusted. However, I have often made even more substantive changes on the fly during a rehearsal based on conductor or performer comments; altering the actual notes in a phrase; changing octaves; etc. This is still composition! In fact, it is perhaps the most exciting type of composing. It is an opportunity to receive instant feedback. Even if a composer is not present for rehearsals, sometimes just asking the players remotely for their input is valuable. As a composer gains more experience, this stage may become less critical. In fact, I often tell my students that a long term goal should be to reach a point where ideas and clarity of musical notation are so precisely presented that a composer should arrive to a premiere having never worked with performers and still be happy with how the piece sounds. Yet, think about how far so many of us are from that! Only by working with performers and learning in the rehearsal process do we begin towards that lofty goal.

Great way to assess my music! The
recently released solo album by
trombonist, Jonathan Whitaker

Features my work, "Tonoi VIII."
The final stage in the composition process is a retroactive assessment of a piece. Once a work is performed, the composer hopes for repeat performances and/or a very good recording that can be shared either through traditional distribution channels or via more personal means such as YouTube, Soundcloud, etc. (Always with the understanding that players have agreed to the distribution of their performances.) A good solid recording certainly aids other performers interested in performing a work. However, I always find it fascinating to hear different interpretations of my music in live performance. It is inevitable that different performers will be bring unique elements to a piece. If that were not the case, why are there hundreds of recordings of Beethoven symphonies? While I am not a big fan of major revisions to a piece after a premiere (I tend to preach a “fix-it-in-the-next-piece” approach), I nevertheless can learn from pieces that get several performances. It is in this context that I learn whether or not what I’ve written is simply unplayable and not particularly idiomatic or whether my initial assessment of a work is the result of an aberrant poor performance. This critical listening aids my aural imagination. I am therefore better poised when again entering stage one of the composition process.

So, by my way of thinking, it is actually possible to work on more than one piece at a time. My caveat is that each piece should be in a different creative stage. During the course a hypothetical (and extremely wonderful) day, a composer could be thinking about an upcoming piece (stage one), actively composing a work (stage two), working on the notation for a finished work (stage three) attending the rehearsal of another completed work (stage four) and going to concert where an older work, with some kind of performance history, is being performed by players who have never presented the work. Admittedly, that would be a pretty good day. However, I hope it illustrates my point. 

“How” to write music is obviously a complex question. Yet, it has been my experience that when students are curious, fill their aural imaginations, embrace the notion that composition is their work, elevating its priority in their lives, and furthermore try to compose within the five stages of creativity outlined above, their music seems to flow better. They have less creative blocks and seem to make real progress as creative artists. Thinking this way sure hasn’t hurt me, either. 

Of course, your mileage may vary. It’s not a one-size-fits-all theory; just a way of thinking that seems valuable to me. How does it strike you? Next month, I’ll be back with part four! If this post interests you, be sure to check out the other entries in this series: “The Outer Artist Part 1: Taking Stock” and “The Outer Artist Part 2: Due Diligence.” As always, if you find any of this useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!   

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 2: Due Diligence

Second in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

After an unintentional hiatus, I return this month to the second in a series on the “business” side of being a composer. Longtime readers of this blog (and I appreciate both of you very much) will remember from my last post that these blog articles are expanded versions of lectures I give in my Composition Seminar class every three to four years. In the inaugural post of this series, I suggested that if one is interested in a career as a composer of art music, it’s best to begin by asking three very fundamental questions: Why do I compose? What should I compose? And how do I go about composing?

Last time, I spent a lot of virtual ink on the questions of why and what (although I still have more to say on this latter question in a future post). For now, as promised, I’d like to more fully tackle the issue of how one should approach writing music. 

I’d like to begin by presenting a scenario that many of my composer colleagues, who also teach for a living, will surely recognize. It’s about the fourth or fifth week into a new semester; just about the time schedules start to squeeze students and they begin to realize that they may have bitten off more than they can chew. The amount of newly composed material has slowly been diminishing over the weeks after a heady start to a new term full of promise and resolutions. Finally, the lesson arrives wherein a student informs me that there is hardly any new music to show because “I had so much work to do for [fill in the blank] this week that I just couldn’t find the time to write much.”

This is the point where I pounce upon the word “work.” 

When the excuse of having “too much work” that interferes with composing is offered, I remind my students that they are confusing their work with their obligations. These are not always the same thing. I believe that a composer’s work is to write music. Period. It should be the single most important aspect of a creative life. If it is not, future disappointments will be unbearable.

As my students will attest, I constantly preach that a composer should furthermore write everyday. This may seem unreasonable at first; especially given the time demands of a student composer then considering the even greater time demands of a professional composer. To my way of thinking, however, there are three ways to develop the discipline of daily writing despite heavy schedule constraints. One way is to consider when and where the creative act of composition takes place. Another way is to consider the creative process as taking place in five stages. The third and most important way to truly develop an ongoing and disciplined creative output, however, is to recognize the difference between work and obligation. 

I often use myself as an example. As a professor at a moderately large school of music, I certainly have my share of obligations. I must prepare and teach classes; I must teach individual composition lessons; I must plan and curate new music concerts; and I must endure a never-ending parade of meetings and produce volumes of bureaucratic paperwork. All this is just for my university gig. I’m also heavily involved with other organizations (both professional music organizations and other non-music groups). I’m certainly not alone in rattling off a plethora of activities. Every composer and professional musician can probably cite even greater lists of obligations as compared to mine. The point is, all of these activities are very important. 

But they are not my work. 

That committee meeting? An obligation. That class? An obligation. These are activities that I take very seriously and undertake to the very best of my ability. But they are not my work. My work is composing music. I always find myself wanting to complete obligations as quickly as possible - without sacrificing quality - in order to get back to work. 

I want to get back to work because I have answered the question of why I want to compose. If a person has really thought about why they write music, the question of how begins to answer itself. Once the mindset of work vs. obligation took hold, I began making the time to compose daily. It became a necessity for me. In approaching composition in this manner, I also found it much easier to prioritize my tasks and not be led too deeply down rabbit holes that robbed me of creative energy. This is the critical first step in learning how to compose. Composition must be a priority. It is a life’s work.

As a composer accepts the commitment of dedicating his or her life to creating music, it follows that time must be carved out to compose. Time is a tricky subject and one that I probably could write another whole article on. A composer has to be in control of two rates of time simultaneously: the actual performance duration of a piece of music and the time it takes to actually compose the music. These can be wildly divergent. The best example is music at a very fast tempo. Let’s say a certain section of a piece requires about 60 seconds of very fast moving music written for several instruments in intricate counterpoint. To work all that out may take hours. It might even take days. What it won’t take is 60 seconds to compose. This might seem self-evident but often less experienced composers seriously underestimate how long it will take to compose even a very few minutes of actual performed music. Couple this underestimation with a confusion about what constitutes work versus an obligation and you arrive at the lesson I described earlier where a student has not had time to compose during an entire week. For a student to miss this type of deadline for a lesson is problematic but correctible. For a composer to miss a professional deadline on a commission could be career threatening. 

There’s no way to get better at predicting how much time it takes to write a piece outside of learning how one’s personal creative energy flows. To learn this, a person must compose a lot of music and that brings us back around to the notion that one should write everyday. Otherwise, gaining the proper experience might take too long or stall altogether leaving a composer hopelessly frustrated.

What I am describing is no different, of course, than what it takes to become a fine musician, actor, dancer, painter or athlete. All these disciplines (and many more) demand daily commitment by their practitioners to move beyond mere hobby status. Serious composers must work likewise. In order to aid in the development of this daily practice, I often advise students to pick something that is consistent with respect to their daily writing. This can be either a time of day or a physical location (or both). Sure, ideally one should be able to compose anywhere and at anytime. This is an admirable goal yet rare is the composer who starts off able to work in this fashion. For less experienced composers finding a time of day that feels best or a special desk or room helps immeasurably. While I can now compose just about anywhere and anytime, I still have my special preferences. I personally prefer to compose either in the early morning or very late at night while the world is quiet. I also have a special corner of my studio where my composition desk sits. No other activity ever takes place in this corner. I do not grade papers or do taxes or even write long blog articles there. I only compose. Simply by sitting in the chair of that desk, I am somehow ready to work. 

So if you are ready to be a professional composer, know why you must write; understand what types of music you are interested exploring; and recognize the difference between your work and your obligations. Then, find something consistent everyday that will aid you in your work.  

In my next post, I will continue on this topic of how to write music and drill further down into more of the nuts and bolts of my philosophy of composing. What are those five stages of creative activity alluded to above? Can one really compose everyday? Can more than one piece be written at the same time? I’ll explore these questions in the next installment of this series. (This time, I hope it won’t take four months to get uploaded!) 

As always, if you find this series useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Outer Artist - Part 1: Taking Stock

First in a series on the "business" of being a composer...

The creative artist is in a very hard profession. The pay is terrible, the work is arduous, rejection is rampant and our modern society, in general, is at best ambivalent and at worst openly hostile to the efforts of an artist. I’m sure this is the case with all serious artists over many disciplines. It is certainly true in my particular neighborhood of artistic expression, music composition. 

Hard as it is to try and survive as a composer on my own, I also find myself in the position of training future composers to take their places among the wounded and weary artistic warriors on a very bleak cultural landscape. Who signs up for this kind of abuse willingly? Do budding young composers really know what awaits them outside the relatively safe confines of a university? What sort of advice can I possibly give? These questions are complicated by a trend in our society to treat higher education as a sort of high-end vocational training with studies that lead to guaranteed employment.   

Some of the most difficult questions asked by composition students just starting out are “What can I do with a degree in music composition? Can I make a living as a professional composer?” The answer to these questions is not always what an idealistic, aspiring artist wants to hear. However, it is important for me to always be truthful with my students. Sometimes being truthful means telling young composers that their music needs more work in a lesson and sometimes it means sitting them down and letting them know what they are in for once they graduate. 

But it also means I have a responsibility to give them a chance to succeed.

Sign of success? The new release on
Albany Records featuring my work
of the same name.
That’s precisely what I am trying to do this fall in my Composition Seminar class at the Georgia State University School of Music. Every three to four years, I devote an entire academic year discussing what I believe goes into a successful career as a professional composer. In class lectures, I try to focus on topics that don't always get addressed in proper depth within the boundaries of a normal composition lesson. In lessons, I am focused primarily on the actual music a student brings in and how to improve a young composer's craft. But what comes next? What is the next step after the music is written and the applause at a composition recital fades away? What is one to do with that portfolio of music and diploma?

I deliver a lot of information in a 50-minute class lecture and I realize that those Keynote slides move by quickly. After my first lecture this week, one of the students asked if I would post the slides online. Normally, I don’t upload my slide presentations but this year, I have decided to expand upon my class lectures in a series of posts here in my blog. Mostly, I'm doing this as a service to my students. However, I hope they may also be of benefit to any other interested persons wandering onto this blog.

One caveat: most of these thoughts are purely my own. I don’t pretend to have all the answers nor do I imagine that everything I suggest is the only way to go about creating a successful career. I simply hope to share some personal insights informed by my more than 30 years of experience in writing music.

So...where to begin?

Oddly enough, I choose not to start with anything more concrete than three basic one-word questions. These questions, in descending order, are: 

3. How? 
2. What?  
1. Why?

Before we can talk about making a living as a composer, I think it is essential that a person peek behind their perceived motivations for wanting to write music in the first place. These three questions, answered honestly, go a long way to providing that insight. 

Let’s look at the third question first: HOW? 

How do I create music? Is it a daily necessity? Is it a chore? Do I try to fit composition in-between other activities or do I make it a priority?  How do I go about the physical act of composition itself? Do I sit in front of a computer and use notation software to input notes? Do I eschew formal notation, at least at first, in favor of other electronic means of creating sound (including anything from more advanced computer music programs such as Max MSP all the way down to Garageband)? Do I actually use a pencil and manuscript paper and compose long hand? Do I need a keyboard or other musical source to compose or can I hear it in my head; composing silently without the aid of an instrument?

I naturally have a few thoughts on these questions. However, I’ll hold off for now and expand upon the “how” question in my next blog post. For the moment, I don’t think I could answer any of those questions unless I first considered another question: WHAT?

What kind of music do I like? Why am I drawn to this type of music? Is my taste a product of exposure to lots of music or through a more narrow pathway? Do I have a relatively fluent understanding of, or at the very least a passing acquaintance with, many genres of music; both within the so-called “Classical Tradition” as well as outside? Am I curious? Do I care about what others are writing?

Great cartoon going around online that speaks
to the plight of the artist in contemporary society.
Knowing what I like to compose really informs how I go about the actual work of creating music. The type of music I have the most passion for will also guide how I use my time and set my priorities. Yet, I find that most young composers have an extremely narrow view of what they like. It’s usually informed by their tastes in movie music and pop music (and by “pop,” I mean anything from heavy metal to hip-hop). In entrance interviews/juries for those students interested in our composition program, I often ask what music students enjoy and listen to on a regular basis. Most often, they cite commercial film composers and pop bands/artists. If they mention “classical” composers, the names brought up are very rarely active contemporary (or even living) composers. I’m much more likely to hear the names Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky rather than Lang, Saariaho, Higdon, Muly, etc. Many contemporary, living composers are not even on the radar of incoming students professing a desire to get into the field. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to enjoy specific genres of music, of course. Nevertheless, I believe someone who professes a desire to create music and develop a personal voice should not limit their listening to just what they know or like.

That’s why I stress (and actually require) students in my seminar to attend and write about contemporary music concerts for credit. The reason for this is simple. I believe that knowing what you like to compose is informed by a very good aural imagination. It’s impossible to develop a useful and expansive aural imagination unless one is CURIOUS

Perhaps this is the greatest foe I have in teaching students; the chronic lack of curiosity. If you are not curious, truly curious and interested in exploring the vast sonic world around you, I believe you are entering our field already at a disadvantage. If you are deeply uninterested in anything outside of a narrow scope of musical expression, you should seriously consider music composition as a fun hobby and find something else that you are truly, passionately interested in exploring.

Knowing what you want to compose and getting a firm handle on how to accomplish that task is still not enough. Before you can truly know how to compose and what to create, you must still answer the hardest question of all: WHY?

Why do I want to compose music? For me, “why” is the biggest question. It is far easier to rattle off methodologies and point to influences than deal with one’s true motivations. A much more personal response is required to honestly answer the question of why compose at all. I don’t think one should shy away from a big answer to a big question. Do you write music because you feel incomplete and through the creation of music you feel whole? Do you write because you are absolutely compelled to share an idea, no matter the cost? Do you write because you believe such an act is the deliberate and defining act of civilization and by so doing, you are contributing to and building up our culture? Do you write because by creating something out of nothing, your actions are an image of the very creation of the universe itself?

You see what I’m getting at here. 

What is the deep, compelling and driving force that prompts the creative act? No two answers are likely to be the same. However, I believe the answer to this question should be authentic and life-defining. Otherwise, writing music is truly a lot of work for nothing. By truly understanding why you compose, you begin to grasp more clearly what it is you want to write; what kind of music best expresses this deep, compelling force of creation. Then, figuring out how to do this comes into focus.

(For another insight into the “why” question. See my previous blog posting, “Looking For A Sign.”)

It’s no small thing to grapple with these three questions. They are not likely to be answered all at once or even in the order I propose. Most likely, they become a lifelong pursuit. However, I believe that those composers who have “succeeded” in the field of composition have dealt with these issues in some form or fashion and can address them. By seriously considering and trying to answer these three questions, I furthermore believe that one begins along the path leading to a successful career. Finally, in dealing with these questions, volunteering for a job with bad pay, hard work, rejection and no recognition starts to make a little sense.    

Next time: a little more on the “how” question!

If you find this series useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled!