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.

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