Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Just Three Things

Many composers view success in a professional career as a prolonged famine broken up periodically by short bursts of feasting. While this is mostly true for me, I currently find myself in one of those rare periods of feasting. In January, I was fortunate to have my work eights shades of metal included in the 18th Biennial Festival of New Music hosted by the Florida State University College of Music. Just days after this wonderful festival, I was privileged to receive a premiere of Echoes In The Wind by the fabulous Atlanta Chamber Winds. I now look forward to the premiere of my large symphonic wind ensemble piece Rituals at the Center of the Universe on March 5, 2017 to be given by the Gwinnett Symphonic Wind Orchestra – the same date, coincidentally, my saxophone quartet Wandering Into Myth receives a performance by the MotoContrario Ensemble at the Festival Contrasti 2017 in Trento, Italy. There are also other scattered performances of my music scheduled throughout the spring.  

Guitarist Luther Enloe premiering
 "TONOI XI"at a recent neoPhonia
New Music Ensemble concert.
This period of creative feasting, coming as it has for me after a very long famine, is not the result of sheer luck or serendipity. During a dry creative period, there is much to be done by a composer to ensure another feast will occur. Professional famines just don’t end naturally by themselves. This point was driven home to me recently at the Festival of New Music in Tallahassee where I had a brief encounter with a graduate student. After the usual pleasantries at a concert reception, the student shared how many DMA programs he had applied to without success before his acceptance at FSU and how happy he was to land in such a good program. Soon the conversation turned towards what his future as a professional composer would look like after graduation. Would achieving professional goals always be this hard? As this was a social occasion, there was no time to launch into a long-winded lecture on what goes into a professional career. I had a lot to communicate to this young composer and a very short window of opportunity. Given these constraints, I told him that I believe that there are just three things to keep in mind.

1. Work. Hard.

My students know my simple three-word mantra: Write Every Day. There is just no getting around the fact that a composer must compose. This is an activity and not a theoretical discussion. Most of the time, writing daily can be difficult. A composer’s time is very limited and it is easy to succumb to the pressures of outside demands. Nevertheless, to be successful, a composer must learn to work every day in some fashion. We cannot afford to leave musical ideas unattended for days on end and expect to be productive.

It’s also not good enough to simply scribble notes on a page just to feel that something was accomplished. The work must be of excellent quality. A composer should never take short cuts in the creative process nor settle for anything less than his or her very best effort. This goes for the preparation of scores and parts as well. A composer must sweat every detail – no matter how small. I am reminded of the story of Steve Jobs who, upon the launch of the iPhone, called an engineer at Google on a Sunday morning with a design complaint. It turns out that the hue of the color in the second “o” of the Google logo was not of sufficient quality. Jobs politely, but firmly, asked that this flaw be corrected. This is the type of attention to detail and dedication to quality it takes to be a good composer. If there is one musical phrase, one misplaced articulation or dynamic marking, or even one tiny note nestled within a myriad of notes that is not “quite right” a composer must take the time to correct his or her work. It doesn’t matter that an audience member might not perceive the flaw immediately. If one is inspired to create a work of Art, the craftsmanship behind communicating that inspiration must match the heights of the inspiration. Inspiration without good craft is just as bad as good craft without inspiration.  

This leads me to a final part of working hard: feeding that inspiration. I refer to this inspiration as the aural imagination and part of working hard is encountering art, literature and ideas that are bigger than yourself. The composer must read voraciously, visit museums, and attend concerts, opera, the theatre and the ballet as much as possible. Good composers have a thirsty curiosity that, when addressed, fuels the aural imagination and leads to the creation of quality music.  

2. Be a “YES” Person.

Hanging out with the cool kids at a recent
concert reception in Tallahassee. (L-R):
Amy Williams, yours truly & Lansing McLoskey.
Within reason, a composer should agree to almost everything related to the creation of new music. If a performer, conductor or presenter asks a composer if there is interest in a project, the answer should almost always be yes! Assuming a very good work ethic (see above), the composer should have a good idea of his or her creative abilities and how long it will take to accomplish a project. If there is a realistic expectation of successfully fulfilling a request, and the request is not somehow contrary to a composer’s ethics, a composer should agree to the project. No matter what it is!

Quick anecdote: after a successful first commission for the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, I was fortunate enough to be commissioned for a second work. I was asked by the conductor if I would be willing to compose a double concerto for Celtic Fiddle and Bluegrass Fiddle and – by the way – the Bluegrass player could not read music like a classically trained player. The orchestra needed the score in three months. “You in?” the conductor asked. Of course, at the time I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to write idiomatically within these genres. I had some passing familiarity with the styles but that was it. This was a request way outside my comfort zone working with musical styles I had heretofore had no interest in. To pull this off, I would have become very fluent in the styles and solve the logistical problem of writing music for a consummate world-class Bluegrass performer (Stuart Duncan) who, nevertheless, did not read music like a classically trained performer. This would take a LOT of work and be a very risky career move.

I said, “Yes, of course! No problem!”   

Then I panicked! Once I said yes, I was now obligated to complete the task! Therefore, after the panic attack subsided, I went to work researching Celtic and Bluegrass musical styles, taking a Celtic Fiddle orchestration lesson, and composing daily. I made it happen. Not pursuing this commission would have possibly made sense but taking it on resulted in one of my favorite works, Long Journey Home, which has enjoyed a performance life outside the original commission. Composing this piece enabled me to grow significantly as an artist.

Lastly, being a “yes” person presupposes a positive outlook and a humble spirit. Perhaps more important than anything is being a kind and caring artist; generous with your time and supportive of your colleagues. Nobody wants to work with a selfish or difficult person.

2. Show Up.

I believe composers lead professional lives that are at times very solitary. That a composer needs solitude to create music should not be too surprising. The composition of contemporary classical music is rarely collaborative at the writing stage. To be sure, there is much room for collaboration once music has been written. However, at the outset, a composer is faced with what I often refer to as the lonely moment when he or she stares at a blank page and must summon ideas from somewhere. While the aural imagination is a great reservoir from which to draw ideas, the composer must still ultimately grapple with creation alone.

Faculty & students at FSU performing my "eight shades
of metal" at the 18th Biennial Festival of New Music.
Outside of the creative process, however, it is a different story. I believe it is of great benefit to all composers to be very extroverted within the field. That means attending as many Arts events – especially concerts – as possible. Not only does this type of activity feed the aural imagination, attendance of as many events as possible allows for the composer to be visible to peers, audience members, performers, conductors and presenters. Being “seen” gets the composer involved in the field and allows for the opportunity for future collaborations. There have been many times that a new creative project has been hatched at a reception of a concert where my music wasn’t even being performed. I simply was an audience member. However, performers and fellow composers usually appreciate and remember the support. Being “seen” and active is the first step in the necessary work of creating one’s own opportunities.

Showing up in the real world is very important but the composer should not forget about the virtual world as well. I tell my students often that they should be professionally active online. Composers can be visible by contributing socially responsible items of interest to social media outlets, by reading blogs devoted to the field and engaging authors via comments, and by prowling online listings of composition opportunities ( being a great resource) and submitting to as many score calls as possible. It is one of the great regrets of my professional life that I did not submit to more opportunities when I was younger. While it is true that you cannot build a career off the hopes of success in such submissions, the occasional award or performance opportunity due to a successful submission becomes a new avenue to make meaningful connections with performers, conductors, and presenters in the field.

I’m sure that the time it took read this entire blog post is longer than my actual conversation with the grad student in Tallahassee. I hope I was succinct enough to effectively communicate my belief that forging a professional career as a composer and keeping a creative famine at bay boils down to just three things: working hard, saying “yes,” and showing up. Sounds easy enough. However, it’s not just glib small talk at a reception. Like most meaningful endeavors, success in the simple things sometimes takes a lifetime of practice.