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!