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!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Looking For A Sign

A few weeks ago, I read a blog post by composer Rob Deemer entitled, “The Big Picture.” In his post, Deemer speaks about his “continual and simultaneous state of reflection on the past and projection towards the future.” Like Deemer, I compose and teach for living. His bi-directional perspective therefore resonates with me; especially in August as a new school year draws near. Artists within the academy may well be prone to this type of reflection given the natural cycles of our profession. While most people pause and reflect around the turn of the calendar year, those in the academy also have an opportunity to reflect at the end of semester and summer cycles as well. 

Most people move to the rhythms of the five-day work week. The weekend is not so much a point of reflection as it is a time of temporary pause and refreshment from the daily grind. American society tends to regard the work week as a kind of tedious necessity and therefore we often see pop-culture references to “Hump Day” or “T.G.I.F.” These references all imply a dissatisfaction with daily work and the passionate anticipation of the coming days off. It’s no surprise then that as the weekend begins to wane, a bit of anxiety about returning to the “normal routine” creeps in. 

Creative artists do not always follow this same rhythm. For those of us who dedicate our lives to the creation of Art, there is no such thing as a five-day work week. We tend not to view our “jobs” as tedious or some sort of necessary grind in need of alleviation. The necessity of our work is driven by deeper impulses. 

Trying to maintain an artistic life within academia is a little more complicated. My cycle is a bit of a hybridization between these two types of working lifestyles; a superimposition of a five-day work week on top of free-flowing creative pursuits. Within this odd, isorhythmic life, my work is not relegated to a 40-hour week nor even confined to a single location; an office. Therefore, I am left with the question: what, exactly, is my work? If traditional workspace boundaries and calendar workdays do not necessary apply, I join Deemer in wondering what my discernible signposts may be. What defines my goals? 

I can’t speak for all artists, naturally, but as for myself, I have always made a distinction between my obligations and my work. I have very real and important obligations associated with my academic appointment. I take them seriously and give them my full attention. However, I will never consider some of these obligations, my work. It is not my work to sit in endless meetings discussing topics very far away from the creative process. Nor is it my work to write up reports on subjects not particularly relevant to the creation of art that sit on administrators’ desks. These are obligations. My work, first and foremost, is to compose music. It’s that simple. A complimentary aspect to this work is teaching. The teaching component of my work is a joy for it allows me to give back to another generation and, selfishly, it makes me a better composer. 

With apologies to Robert Heinlein, the artist in academia is a “stranger in a strange land.” Square pegs in round holes, we are compelled to refer to art as “research,” our concerts take place at “conferences” and we document our creative work as “professional development.” Again, I consider Rob Deemer’s blog post. In his particular case, having attained an important goal, promotion and tenure at his university, Deemer now finds the simultaneous reflection on the past and projection towards the future a bit “paralyzing, especially if there are no overarching goals to act as signposts on the road.” 

A good example of why I compose. The Perimeter Flutes
giving a wonderful premiere performance of my work,
"Chasing Time" - August 3, 2013
My perspective, having gone through tenure and promotion to Associate Professor back in 2004 and promotion to Full Professor in 2010, is guided by one over-arching question: WHY do I compose? I have touched on this topic before in this blog but I return to it again because it is the essential question of my artistic life. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that I want to remain a “stranger in a strange land.” In concentrating on this goal, I am continually provoked by the question of why I do what I do. If I do not keep regarding myself as a stranger, and do not continually assess my deep reasons for creating music, I fear I might assimilate into the academic environment to the extent that my understanding of my work changes. I fear that I will begin to view committees, academic rank and reports as work. I fear that I will begin to make references to “Hump Day” or “T.G.I.F.” in casual conversations with colleagues; wishing the days to pass quickly. Despite my best intentions, I nevertheless fall prey to this mentality all the time; especially in August. There are times when I look at the month of August as one big “Sunday afternoon;” the waning of an extended break from the routine. As the days pass, I notice shadows lengthening and the shortening daylight hours. The inevitability of the fall semester becomes more apparent. Soon the leaves will begin to change and my my working days will be altered. I begin to think about faculty meetings, committee meetings, reports and all the other obligations of an academic career and I begin to have the same sense of anxiety as experienced by someone dreading the weekend’s conclusion. 

However, by really focusing on the distinction between obligations as opposed to my actual work, I find that I can better prioritize my life. While there are necessary and important obligations added from August to May, my “signposts on the road” are not really dictated by the academy, my physical surroundings nor the rhythms of the calendar directly. My signpost is a continual beacon leading towards the next composition; the next interesting project; the next opportunity to try and say something of importance through art; my work. This signpost has a single word on it: “Why?”

A truthful answer to that question is the goal.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Simple Question

I have been thinking recently about my first composition teacher, Roger Hannay (1930-2006). It’s the mid-point of the year and a time I typically pause to take stock of my creative output. In looking at my work over the past six months, I can’t help but hear my old mentor’s voice, somehow clearer than before. What I remember most right now is not so much all the good and valuable technical training Roger provided. Rather, it’s a question he once asked me.

Atlanta composers chatting it up after a recent
performance by Terminus Ensemble in Atlanta.
L-R: Natalie Williams, yours truly, John Anthony Lennon,
Tim Jansa & Adam Scott Neal.
I just completed my fifth composition of 2013 a few days ago, a piece for solo soprano saxophone. I’m already prepping for the sixth work, a large piece for solo tenor and orchestra. There are several more pieces in the queue after that. I’m not sure about all composers, but this seems like a lot for me – especially given all the outside obligations inherent in an academic career. However, as I look over my catalog, I notice that I have been on this accelerated writing pace over the past few years. Since the beginning of 2011, I have finished 17 pieces. Gazing suspiciously on these compositions, it is natural to assume that a torrent of notes does not necessarily equal quality. After all, Edgard Varèse has very few surviving works in his catalog and is nevertheless recognized (and rightly so) as one of the seminal figures of the early 20th Century. The irony that my 17 pieces written over the past two and half years equals the entire number of pieces in Varèse’s catalog (as listed in his Wikipedia article) is not lost on me. Surely, none of these 17 works measure up to even the least of the pieces in Varèse’s entire surviving catalog.

However, focusing on one composer with an extraordinarily small catalog is too narrow a view. History is, of course, replete with great composers who have literally hundreds of compositions in their respective catalogs. So where does that leave me? Why do I compose so many pieces? What compels me to jump right into a new project having barely completed the previous one?

The new release on Albany Records featuring two works
of mine: "Tonoi VII" & "An Empty Blouse"
It’s these questions that bring me back again to Roger. I often tell the story of an important exchange I had with him early in my studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I may have already recounted it in some past entry in this blog. It’s still worth repeating. One day, probably sometime in the spring of 1983, I arrived to my lesson in good spirits having just finished a composition. I remember proudly presenting all the little doodles contained in my thick stack of dog-eared manuscript paper and eagerly awaiting some sort of praise from my teacher. Instead, as he looked over my work, Roger casually asked what I was working on at the moment. I froze. What was he talking about? Didn’t he see all that work right before his eyes? When I finally stammered out my answer, that he was looking at what I had been doing, Roger glanced up and informed me that if I was not currently working on a piece, then I wasn’t really a composer.

Over the years, I have thought a lot about that statement. I don’t believe Roger literally meant that unless I was actively composing a new work daily I could not consider myself a composer. I think, instead, he was communicating two important ideas to me. First, you cannot simply rest on past achievements. It doesn’t matter if your finest work is behind you. A creative artist must push ahead and explore. Your best work will certainly be in the past if you cease to create in the present. The second idea follows naturally from this first one. A composer must have a good work ethic. You cannot move forward and explore without considerable effort and determination. This is especially true of the path taken by creative artists.

One of the first public screenings of "A Free Bird," an
independent comedy with a film score by yours truly!
It’s no accident, therefore, that 2011 was the beginning of an active writing period for me. I had just been promoted to the rank of Full Professor at my university in the spring of 2010 and Roger’s question rang loudly in my thoughts. “What are you working on now?”  Yes, as all the pictures in this post demonstrate, over the past few months there have been lots of performances, a new commercial recording and even my debut as a film composer. But still I hear the words, “What are you working on now?”

It’s not hubris that compels me to increase my creative activities precisely at a time when it doesn’t matter as much in my professional academic career. It’s fear. It’s the fear of standing still; growing stagnant. Mostly, however, it’s the ghostly voice of my teacher ringing up through the decades challenging me to keep moving. It is neither particularly virtuous nor deleterious to write a lot of music. The same may be said for those who create at a more deliberate pace. What’s important is the attitude of the artist. It’s not about how fast or how much you write or the size of your catalog. In the end, it’s about being able to answer a simple question:

What are you working on now?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

To Thine Own Self…

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 2013 New Music USA Awards Ceremony held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. The energy at this event was palpable as some of the heaviest hitters in the field were in attendance. Even with a casual look at the program, names such as John Luther Adams, Anthony Braxton, John Kander, William Kraft, Meredith Monk and the JACK Quartet among others immediately caught my eye. All of these award recipients (with the exception of Braxton) were present. The evening also featured magnificent live performances of music. Members of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble and The M6 teamed up for a gorgeous reading of Monk’s Jewish Storyteller/Dance/Dream from Book of Days. Another real treat were performances by Face the Music, an ensemble comprised of high school students from the Kaufman Music Center under the direction of Jennifer Undercofler. The young performers gave a very spirited and respectable performance of Lick by Julia Wolfe as well as a work by one of their own members, bassist Ethan Cohn’s Lionfish.

The view from the top of the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in NYC. The breathtaking
Freedom Tower dominates the skyline.
It might be easy to get swept up in a bit of stargazing in such surroundings (and I do confess to a bit of that), but I had another important takeaway from the event. It was readily apparent to me from the outset that each of the recognized composers and ensembles had extremely diverse and distinctive voices. There was nothing cookie-cutter about the evening. Even for someone outside the contemporary music world, it would be very difficult to confuse the music of John Luther Adams with Meredith Monk or John Kander. The award recipients had all cultivated distinctive and highly personal voices. These were creative artists who were neither timid nor worried about fitting in or sounding like everyone else. It’s a wonderful model that can never be displayed often enough.

It’s easy sometimes for me to fall into a bit of despondency from time to time over lack of recognition on a national stage, perceived snubs, etc. I’m sure it’s the same for all creative artists. I’m convinced, however, that the way out of such valleys is not to try and sound like those who are “successful.” There is room at the creative table for many voices. To truly cultivate one’s artistic voice, there is just one important question that needs to be asked: Why do you create?

When someone finds out that I am a composer – and they move past the novelty that such persons still exist – I am asked, “what kind of music do you compose?” Usually, my answer – given in nervous fits and starts – revolves around the “what” and “how” of my work. When the composer Alvin Singleton is asked the very same question, (“what kind of music do you write?”) his quick and assured response is “wonderful music.” I love this answer because, at its heart, it comes from a clear understanding of the “why” question.

Hanging out with some truly distinctive and wonderful
composers after the awards ceremony in Little Italy.
(L-R: Carman Moore; yours truly, Alex Shapiro &
Alvin Singleton)
To write personal, distinctive and wonderful music, a composer knows – at the very deepest level – why he or she is compelled to create music. The answer to “why do you write” is no doubt different for each composer. It is a question that has been considered and cultivated through the unique life experience of the successful artist. Yet, to understand why one creates is still not enough. Composers of significance also are fearless. They are sensitive to what moves them and explore those facets of creativity that speak most insistently to them, irrespective of where their journey may lead. For some, these explorations lead to highly experimental and genuinely genre-bending pieces. For others – and I include myself in this group – the exploration simply bolsters the courage to compose music that seems, at least on the surface, more conventional in nature.

There was a time when I was a little embarrassed that I conceived of music in more “traditional” ways. I felt that because I am drawn to explorations of harmony, melody and pulse driven rhythm I was somehow not modern; not relevant.

Increasingly, none of that matters anymore.

As I progress in my career, I am gaining a clearer understanding of why I write. I know what is important to me and I strive with every piece to hone my craft in order to better express myself. I’m also trying to be more courageous. With each passing year and each completed piece, I try to better understand how to write what I want without resting on mere craft. Most importantly, I’m beginning to understand that it’s fine to want to be like the “successful” composers; as long as I do it my way and not theirs.

So what kind of music do I write? Just listen.

The day that a listener can discern the answer to that question without me spilling a long string of inadequate words is the day I become a “successful” composer. I won’t need anyone’s validation or award. The work itself will be the reward and the recognition will eventually follow. Or, it won’t. Again, it doesn’t matter.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with award ceremonies, prizes and all the other measures of “success.” Our nation is fortunate that wonderful organizations such as New Music USA exist and promote contemporary composers and their work. But it is important for me to keep a balanced perspective. Somehow, I don’t believe any of the composers receiving awards in Manhattan a few weeks ago created their distinctive art with ceremonies in mind.

Neither should I.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Birds Of A Feather: Five Reasons We Should Still Flock Together

Although it seems a long time ago, it has only been a week since I traveled to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio for the National Conference of the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI). Because I find air travel inherently tedious, I began jotting down a few thoughts about this recent experience on the return flight while my impressions were still fresh (and to kill some time aboard the plane). Now that I've let a whole week slip by, I suppose it’s time to finish my thoughts.

L-R: Yours truly, newly elected President of SCI,
James Paul Sain & newly elected Chairman of the
SCI Executive Committee, Mike McFerron
Attendance at a conference, such as the recently concluded SCI event, is certainly not a new experience for me. I've been to many such gatherings over the years. As a composer working in academia, it comes with the territory. The acronyms of the sponsoring organizations may change (SCI, CMS, SEAMUS, etc.) but the format for a conference generally remains constant: a group of composers have pieces selected by peer-review to be performed for one another. 

At first glance, these events seem to be rather odd affairs for composers to attend. It’s true that many concerts of contemporary music are given at a conference. However, aside from outward appearances, there are significant differences between a “traditional” concert and one presented at an academic conference.

Wonderful performance of my piece,
"Citizens of Nowhere" at the SCI Conference
by Casey Grev, sax & Cody Grabbe, b. clar.
One important, and immediately apparent difference is the make-up of the audience. While it is unlikely that anyone might turn away an interested person outside the organization from wandering into a conference concert, the audience often consists predominantly of other composers. This can be a bit unnerving to the composer whose work is being performed. Unlike general concert goers, an audience made up of composers is a knowledgeable group of people. They tend to listen more carefully and analytically. They have a knowledge of contemporary repertoire that allows for instantaneous and automatic comparisons of the piece being performed with the vast cannon of literature. Worst of all, they usually know when a performance goes poorly and if it is the fault of the performers or the composer.

Another difference is the sheer number of concerts presented in succession. It’s true that at music festivals, such as Spoleto USA held each spring in Charleston, SC, a great many concerts are presented usually beginning in the late morning or noon hour and continuing throughout the day. Yet patrons of these kinds of festivals freely choose a selected sampling of the total concert offerings. At a conference, on the other hand, it is not uncommon for a participant to attend nearly all the concerts presented. This can make for a sometimes grueling marathon of music; listening intently for hours upon end until everything begins to sound the same.

Sometimes I ask myself, why travel to such an event? Conferences seem very insular; composers having their music performed for one another with no apparent care for the outside world. What’s the benefit of taking part in such an endeavor? It sometimes seems like there must be a better way to accumulate Frequent Flyer Points.

There are five reasons, actually, I still think conferences are useful to composers. Maybe even important.
  1. For younger composers, acceptance through peer-review at a conference is very similar to winning a composition prize. It carries a certain gravitas and signals to others in the field that the composer is of a certain stature and is to be taken a little bit more seriously. For student composers especially, selection at a conference is a signifiant item to place in a curricular vitae.
  2. Conferences are great places for composers to encounter new works and composers beyond the same “big names” that win the major awards or whose names appear regularly in New York Times reviews. Despite the fatigue of sitting through many concerts, a piece can still grab one’s attention and inspire the attentive composer in the audience.
  3. Conferences are also wonderful places to meet very talented performers who, by their very presence at the event, demonstrate a dedication to performing new music. This is no small opportunity. The composer who pays attention, identifies and makes contact with such performers. A valuable professional connection is made and the possibility of collaboration is a simple email away after the conference ends. This opportunity for collaboration, by the way, exists also with fellow composers. 
  4. For the young composer in academia, perhaps the most compelling reason to attend such conferences is to satisfy the demands of an academic career. Upper administrators in a university are usually non-musicians that hold creative artists to the same standards as other academic disciplines. To “present” one’s “research” through peer-review demonstrates good standing in the field and is enormously helpful in the promotion and tenure process. This is a very serious concern for the composer in academia and one that is thankfully addressed by the existence of such events.
  5. For older composers, such as myself, the critical need for presentation in order to earn promotion and tenure is no longer relevant. It’s not even the performance of a work that is of critical artistic importance. Often, the pieces I send in for a conference already have a rich performance history. However, I was reminded again this past week up in Columbus how nice and truly beneficial it is to simply have the opportunity to chat, face-to-face over coffee or at dinner, with colleagues around the country and compare notes. 
I don’t attend academic conferences as often as I once did. However, my experiences last weekend in Columbus have reaffirmed that I will probably never abandon them completely. This SCI Conference has made me a better pedagogue for my students and a more inspired composer as well.  All that and the Frequent Flyer Points, too!

What do you think? Do academic conferences still matter to you?

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Next Level

Last month, I celebrated a fairly significant birthday: my fiftieth. It’s hard to imagine myself reaching such an age! In my mind, I still feel like I’m just a kid starting out in my career. Yet, the calendar and the body of work I’ve completed thus far, point to a far different reality. (All the grey hair contributes as well.) As we are all wont to do at the beginning of a new year, I find myself indulging in a bit of reminiscing concerning the year just ended as well as feeling charged with anticipation as this new year dawns. However, given my thoughts concerning my birthday, this reminiscing and anticipation double as a time to also indulge in a bit of assessment of where I stand in my career. What does 50 look like for a composer?

Trombonist Jon Whitaker and yours truly at a
recording session of my work, Tonoi VIII. Summer, 2012
My motivations for writing music are, I suspect, similar to many other composers. I feel a deep desire to create art and share it. I would be a liar if I did not quickly add that there is a part of me that longs for recognition for my work. This recognition typically means a trophy case brimming with all the awards that everyone desires bearing names such as Grawemeyer, Pulitzer and Guggenheim among others. Recognition also means a reputation such that major ensembles and performers are seeking me out specifically for commissions that – of course – pay well. If you add reams of positive reviews, the picture is complete.

So, at 50, how far away am I from all of that? As it turns out, I find myself at once tantalizingly close and hopelessly far away from these benchmarks of “success.”

When I first left graduate school at age 30, I had hoped that by age 50, the major commissions and prizes would have already begun to accumulate. After all, I was heading out into the world with a real head of steam. I had graduated from some of the top schools in the country and already had received a commission by the Cleveland Orchestra for a small work (thanks entirely to my great mentor, Donald Erb). My career was to be an endless series of opportunities yielding success after success with only the occasional flop to break the monotony.

Yours truly pictured with fellow adjudicators, performers
and composer finalists for the Atlanta Chamber Players
Rapido Composition Competition. Fall, 2012
Things did not turn out that way. At 50, the big trophies (Grawemeyer, Guggenheim, etc.) still elude me as do commissions from the “Top 10” orchestras. I write music as often for free as I do for money and my national reputation, such that it may be, teeters constantly on the brink of non-existence. Successes are the exception to the rule and are what break a monotony of rejection letters. I often think back on a review that was printed online back in 2010 after the performance of a solo viola piece of mine. After complimentary remarks about my music and its performance, the reviewer concluded by musing, “After every Demos performance I scratch my head and wonder: Can he push himself to the next level?” At age 50, it’s question that haunts me and one that I cannot presently answer.

L-R: Composers Robert Scott Thompson, Charles Knox,
Mark Gresham, cellist Craig Hultgren, yours truly &
composer Roger Vogel after a concert. August, 2012
If I am not at the “next level” yet, it certainly isn’t for lack of effort. I try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and enter almost every contest that is still available to me. As these can be relatively few in number, I often create my own opportunities. Nevertheless, more and more, I have a gnawing concern that the train has long since left the station. In a society obsessed with youth, the 50 year old might as well be 150. Glance at any listing of contests and opportunities and most are for younger (under 30) “emerging” composers. How long does it take to emerge anyway? When going down this path of thought, I easily despair that I am hopelessly far removed from the benchmarks of success set in my ambitious youth.

L-R: Yours truly, Director/Writer Gregg Russell, Vickie
Russell, Producer Scott Mills at a pre-screening of the
film, "A Free Bird."
Yet this line of thinking is the height of self-indulgence. If you take a look at the photos I have included in this blog entry (all taken within the past year), it becomes easy to observe a career far removed from the pitiful portrait I sometimes so earnestly paint. It is true that I am nowhere near the level of success I expected for myself in my youth. This is an honest assessment. It is no less honest, however, to admit that the news is not all bad. The photos presented within this article show a composer with wonderful musicians committed to playing his music. They show a composer sought after as adjudicator and a composer seated with an independent film director/writer and film producer at the prescreening of his first movie score. These pictures do not even include the work I recently composed for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, my residency as a Fellow at the MacDowell Artist Colony and my collaboration with the Atlanta Ballet (the latter two of which have been well-documented in this blog). Sure, it is not a Steven Spielberg movie or commission by the New York Phil but for Heaven’s sake – what do I want? Am I to be constantly regretful because the amazing opportunities I have had to date do not rise to some impossible self-expectation? The fact is, I am always very close to pushing myself to the “next level.” My years of experience and opportunities to date have positioned me perfectly to take advantage of such an opportunity to rise if that is God’s will.

If it isn’t – so be it. I still enjoy a career as a tenured full professor at a very good School of Music. I have my music performed regularly and continually have the opportunity to create art and share it. Even my “trophy case” is not as bare as I sometimes think it is. The lack of so-called “major” awards in no way diminishes the lovely recognitions that have been bestowed upon me and adorn my case. Maybe that “next level” will be the realization that the journey is more important than the trophy case, anyway. Less longing for what I don’t have and much more appreciation and gratitude for all I do possess is the next level I really want to attain.

So what does 50 look like for a composer? All in all, pretty damn good for this one.