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.

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