Thursday, April 21, 2011

"...with a little help from my friends..."

I have a recurring daydream. If you’re a composer, maybe you’ve had it too. It’s the one where a major music director from one of the Big Five symphony orchestras, or a well-known performer or chamber ensemble contacts me after perusing my website and offers me a commission. OK, so perhaps it’s not a daydream. It’s a delusion; somewhere akin to a 10-year-old who catches a foul ball at a baseball game and secretly hopes the manager of the team noticed what a great play was made.

L-R: Demondrae Thurman, myself, Randall Coleman &
Jon Whitaker after a recent performance of my music.
Of course, back on planet Earth, it almost never works this way. It’s exceedingly rare to be simply “discovered” and catapulted into a career. Most composers I know – especially the composer writing this blog entry – need to work on their careers and try to put themselves into a position where their work is noticed. But how do you go about doing that?

There are two givens a composer needs before even thinking about getting into a position where they find themselves in the spotlight. First, one must actually write good music on a consistent basis. This involves hard, diligent and consistent work. It may involve several college degrees – or it may not. However, it usually always involves some sort of apprenticeship with a more experienced composer. This may be in the traditional composition lesson via a degree program at the music school of your choice – or simply working privately with a composer after the day gig. The second given is that a composer must put themselves into a position TO be noticed. In the 21st Century, that probably means an easy-to-find web presence. Composers should have a place they call “home” online (a website, blog, etc.) as well as good social media skills via the ubiquitous Facebook and other online social media outlets such as Twitter and LinkedIn among others.

My friend, Theofilos Sotiriadis from Thessaloniki, Greece
performing on the last neoPhonia concert in April.
Given you work hard, have some training and are established on the web, what’s next? How does the composer get the music “out there?” One way, of course, is by entering every possible score call and opportunity published. No guarantees there, however. Every opportunity has many applicants. The bigger the prize, the fiercer the competition one encounters. I’d hate for my only opportunity for performance and “discovery” to be left solely to the vagaries and subjectivity of a contest. So where does that leave a composer?

I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to sit on a panel with the distinguished American composer, Libby Larsen. She was a guest on our campus and our Director of Bands organized a joint panel discussion with student composers and performers. When, during the Q&A session, a student asked what was the best advice she could give to a young composer, Ms. Larsen, without hesitation and with firm resolve answered, “You must write for your friends.”

Therein lies one of the most important tools a composer has to control a career. It would not take much research to quickly discover that most composers throughout history wrote for their friends and great pieces of music often resulted from these relationships. A performer who personally likes you and your music is apt to give you a wonderful performance. Friends are much more likely to champion a work and breathe life into your composition by programming it more than once; giving a piece of music an actual performance history and exposing it to an even wider audience. A friend is more likely to allow you to stream all or part of their live performance of your work on a website or via a blog thus widening your audience even further. Friends tell other friends about your music and your connections to one friend lead to opportunities with another. I could write several paragraphs outlining example after example in my own career where this has been the case. In fact, all of this is brought to my mind by several recent activities I have been engaged in just this spring.

My friend, Christos Galileas, recording a
chamber piece of mine last week.
Since the start of the new year, I have had the great fortune of having several of my works recorded for various commercial CD releases due directly to relationships I have with performers. Friends from Greece have been in the United States this month not only performing on my neoPhonia series but also actively discussing future projects. I have had four recent performances of a brand new work by two good friends of mine who have championed the work I wrote for them. We’re now talking about future concerto projects! I just got back from hearing a double concerto of mine written for euphonium, trombone and winds wherein the soloists embraced my music, took ownership of it and suggested slight revisions that exponentially improved the work. This last point is the most important for me. Writing for friends encourages true artistic collaboration. It releases the creative spirit in performers and greatly benefits the composer. Like just about everything in life, a composer cannot succeed alone. Left solely to my own devices, I would be nowhere. Through community, we lift each other up and journey towards the fulfillment of our great potential - together.

Although it is unlikely that I will ever get that phone call from a famous conductor out of the blue, I continue to enjoy a rich artistic life made possible through my friends. A commission from the New York Philharmonic would be great, of course, but it might not necessarily guarantee happiness. Sometimes the true, heartfelt embrace of your friend onstage amid applause after a performance is the most important and lasting reward – and maybe all the “discovery” I need.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Am I Here Yet?

If you are a composer who regularly trolls through score call listings for contests, festivals or conference submissions, the following sentence (or one very much like it) will be very familiar:

“The [name of sponsor] is pleased to announce the [name of opportunity], designed to support the creation and premiere of new works by emerging composers.”

When I come upon this phrase, I usually pass on by without reading the remainder of the score call. In this particular context – a score call – I am well aware of what “emerging” means: 35 or younger; preferably younger. Now this is fine, of course. Commissioning groups are well within their rights to qualify the parameters of their score calls. And to be fair, groups do not limit calls on the basis of age in all instances. Often, contests or other opportunities may be restricted by geographical location, gender or ethnicity. Also, just to stem the wave of sympathy now being directed my way, there are plenty of opportunities out there with absolutely no restrictions. So, no worries; I’m not left weeping in my studio, destitute of opportunities. My issue, then, is not with qualifying factors placed on score calls. It is, rather, with the specific term “emerging.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now; ever since reading the wonderful blog post by composer Alexandra Gardner in the American Music Center webzine, NewMusicBox entitled “Composer Emerging.” In her post, Gardner asks, “…how does an "emerging composer" turn into a straight up "composer"? By finishing a doctoral degree? With a tenure track teaching position or other substantial music-related gig? Upon receiving a commission from a major orchestra or signing with a major publisher? A big award such as a Guggenheim fellowship or Rome Prize? I have no idea!”

I don’t think anyone has a clear idea. If you ask ten different composers what “emerging” status means, I suspect you will get at least eleven different answers. For me, the answer is a bit fuzzy as well. I believe most composers are in a state where they have emerged, are emerging and hope someday to emerge. This fuzzy area can be flanked, however, with two pretty clear endpoints: at one end is someone (age is irrelevant) who has either never completed a piece or, having written a work, never had the composition performed in front of an audience.

On the far end, we have the “famous” composer (age, again, irrelevant). To my way of thinking, these “famous” composers share at least five attributes. First, they have garnered significant recognition in the field. This recognition is at a high level as demonstrated by big time commissions by big time ensembles (i.e., major symphony orchestras or well-known chamber groups such as eighth blackbird or the Kronos Quartet). These commissions are usually accompanied with big time grants and awards such as those Gardner lists: a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rome Prize – I’ll throw in a Grawemeyer Award and, of course, the Holy Grail, a Pulitzer Prize. Second, “famous” composers often have older works continually performed. This is a huge distinction from most rank and file composers. As hard as it is to get just a single premiere, it is exponentially more difficult to get second or third performances of a piece. (And really, anything over three performances of the same work is just crazy talk.) Third, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I imagine “famous” composers do not usually troll through score call listings for contests, festivals or conference submissions. They are probably too busy with the aforementioned commissions several years out to bother entering most contests. If they attend a festival or conference, it is usually not because they had a single piece selected through an adjudicated process. Rather, they were selected to be the distinguished composer-in-residence for the event. Fourth, “famous” composers probably earn a significant income from commissions, royalties, sales of recorded music and sales of physical music. Some may even live completely off of these revenue streams. Finally, I’m guessing every composer I would identify as “famous,” would point to someone else who they feel is more accomplished.

So where does that leave the rest of us? In that great fuzzy middle of having emerged, in the process of emerging and hoping to emerge. My answer to Gardner’s question of how an "emerging composer" turns into a straight up "composer" is simple: we are ALL straight up composers. We have varying degrees of experience, academic credentials, recognition and, yes, age. However, once we put pencil to paper (or for my younger colleagues, pixels to computer screens); once we create our first electronic piece, devoid of traditional notes but full of passion; once we sit horrified or enraptured as our music is performed in public; once we hear applause and stand in the audience as performers recognize us from the stage; once we send off that first piece and get that first rejection letter; once we have done any of those things - we have emerged. After that, we should just relax about our status. We’re all emerging composers; even the “famous” ones.