Imagining the Composer Today
I've lived the life of a professional musician for more than 45 years. This includes a chapter as pianist (from early teens into my 20s) and my life as a composer, starting even earlier. It was having to practice that awakened me to composing at roughly age 11: after playing knotty passages over and over again in hopes of improving the execution, I'd give myself the treat of sight-reading some Chopin; eventually I got through the Mazurkas, Waltzes, and Nocturnes. And it was a piece like his Berceuse—made up of many variations over a semi-cadence progression in D♭—that let me know Chopin also didn't like to practice! When the music needed to repeat he'd always make it somehow different—somewhere something was always being tweaked on the surface, or elaborated in the harmony. I took this as personal invitation to go right ahead and mess around with the notes—and have lived the liberated life of composer ever since.
Today though I'll discuss not so much my life in music, as the long view of a life as a composer in the present day. I'll touch on: what drives us, how our philosophies as creative musicians are continually being re-imagined, how we manage to create even as we navigate a society filled with constant stimulation for every sense, how we fold technology advances into our profession, and how we cope with getting Paid as well as getting Played. In short, I'll change around Pete Townshend's question "WHO are you?" to the plural "Who are WE?"
Bedrock is that we write music because we must. Composers savor music as the palpable, extraordinary instrument of expression it is, possessing a communicative ability that altogether bypasses words and rationality. Composing is a chief impulse in our lives—if we're forestalled from scratching that creative itch for too long, we get irritable, moody. Market forces fundamentally have little to do with what we write. And certainly no MasterCard credit limits—no matter how generous—would accurately recompense us for the time/effort/ ingenuity we expend in concepting and completing a sizeable new work. (Twenty years ago Elliott Carter mentioned to a pre-concert audience that if he were precise about it, his rate of pay for the work being played would come in at about three cents per hour!)
How we do what we do hasn't changed very much over centuries. In times past, composers have been quick to incorporate technology advances into their process, whether that meant a new tool to hand-draw 5-line staves on blank paper, or mimeographing choral scores in multiple. The last 30 years are no exception. Today, technology is a grand tool—the computer expedites both ends of the creative process: electronic sound generation and sampling can compress the early stages of 'mental doodling'; and notation software lends polish to the end-stage, enabling quicker and more legible generation of score and parts.
Composers are highly imaginative folks. But one thing we're not any longer—if we ever were—is someone who most of the time is squirreled away in a garret charting the newest of new notes in utter isolation. True—that's part of how we do what we do. And it's the part of the process I myself like a whole lot! The garret's the place where we really get to hear the music inside our heads.
But because our art requires translation into actual sound we regularly interact with performers, thus becoming producers, entrepreneurs par excellence. Many of us conduct, many of us play. We're super-aware that to finish a piece means going beyond getting all the information on the page in a complete-enough form: finishing also means shepherding the work forward through explanation, rehearsals, and on into public performance. As the national organization Meet The Composer intimates, one of our key roles is to be the public face of music.
It's natural that composers occupy a pinnacle position—we're music's poets, music's engineers, music's philosophers. ASCAP identifies some 32,000 composers/singer-song writers in the USA today, and we embed in society at every rank. We hold professional titles ranging from that of composer and arranger to educator, conductor, music supervisor (for film), sound designer (in theatre), arts administrator, librarian, critic, theorist, musicologist, performer. Quite a few of us also have day jobs in professions utterly unrelated to music. We're everyone's neighbor, at times masquerading as "the man in the gray flannel suit" or "desperate housewife."
Unlike athletes, composers don't "time out"—many cultural writers believe we won't hit our stride until the age of 40 or 45. There's a symbolic language and lots of technical stuff to learn, work through and work into one's personal esthetic. So in addition to being the young and the restless we're also the lions in winter—able rightly to be described as "emerging composer" at virtually any age.
It can help if we grow up in a major cultural center (as I did in New York City). Because of that "accident of geography" (which in my case included the option to study at Juilliard Prep every Saturday) every musical thing I did held the potential to see public light. Even fledgling compositional efforts came forward in pretty polished performance; and—crucially—I understood that the critiques I received both for compositions and for piano performance were pegged to the highest international standards. Such an environment is bracing: at times perhaps cruel, but always informative.
Maturing in this cosmopolitan environment taught me many truths. Among the most important: to survive as a composer you can't have a too-thin skin. Art is a demanding master. Very good art (let's not use the word "great" just yet), very good art passes through a critical lens that sports a mighty-small aperture. In the intensified focus of public performance the composer has got to deliver the goods—her own voice, manner, imagination. So I learned to require of myself that my music be the finest it can be, to the greatest extent humanly possible, in every piece.
It's tricky to navigate the balance between being thoroughly yourself and reaching your listener—it calls for the finest of calibrations on a continuing basis. Once I understood the power of performance as crucible, I soon realized its corollary: it won't matter ultimately if you don't please "all of the people all of the time." A happier, more sensible and reasonable goal is to reach "some of the people most of the time."
Of course, I'm talking about classically-framed art music. This music is revelatory on many levels, it wants the listener to visit with it and take it personally. At its finest, art music's meaning permeates deeply. The musical fabric is built in tiers and keeps changing its bandwidth—at many points, not just at phrase-ends; its tessituras also adjust at idiosyncratic intervals; it provides constant sonic stimulation using many, many timbral combinations (from pure colors to cross-family mixes almost infinite in variety); and its forms can be of any proportion, ranging in analogue from poetic to essay-like, to novelistic. Such music cries out for a composer of distinct personality—maybe even one that is fresh, or weird. It is music that has the potential to endure.
Art music presumes a specific, active frame for listening. How different that is from the way we are meant to take in the "sound blanket" formed by today's music, streaming past our ears in every public space! Today's listening standpoints arise elsewhere, deriving either from postmodernism or pop.
Cool postmodernism invites us to view, to listen, at some distance; and postmodern works often have shallow space below their beautifully wrought surfaces. Painter Frank Stella explains why:
One could stand in front of any abstract-expressionist work for a long time, walk back and forth, and inspect the depths of the pigment and the inflection and all the painterly brushwork for hours. But I wouldn't particularly want to do that and also I wouldn't ask anyone to do that in front of my paintings—I'd like to prohibit them from doing that . . . . All I want anyone to get [from] my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion . . . . What you see is what you see.
Pop, on the other hand, wants the listener up-close—it's warm, familiar. The pop viewpoint invites us to enjoy this particular song as an incrementally differentiated version of what we've already met. Because it's so personal, inventive pop has the potential to stay in memory, and for many listeners to remain meaningful over time. But in its more mediocre incarnations, pop relies on existing formulas; these signal crudely how you're meant to hear, using ready cues from tempo and percussion/accompaniment grooves to generate the expected emotional response.
Most of what the media nowadays push to our attention is market-driven, and for mass consumption the market forces are definitely pop. It's oh-so tempting to import pop marketing strategies into the high-art realm. But for art music that wholesale translation would be misguided, and unhealthy.
Society's current watchword is "NOW—the moment is NOW!" If we join together the celebration of gut instinct/snap decisionas in Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book "Blink!"—with the implications of Francis Fukuyama's early-90s declaration—"The end of history"—we've arrived at the touchstones for the attitudinal climate in our time.
Let me be specific. Four factors now dominate the listening experience, having immense effect on how we understand music, how we hear it in the first place, and how we remember and value it in remembrance.
Factor #1: Hierarchy Dismissed. We no longer have a commonly-held value system leading to an ordering hierarchy by means of which exceptional, or great works can be identified.
According to composer Kenneth Lampl the words "great" and "historical" have an underlying link. "By definition, both these words assume that some authority must decide the value and level of historical or aesthetic importance of the piece or the composer. In the past the question has always been 'who is the great artist?' whereas today we ask 'who is the authority to validate the great artist?'
In popular culture, it's even more basic: the individual creates the truth that works for her. If an individual likes something, she consumes it, in whatever form it takes. There is no quest for 'validation' of any kind." [On the Internet]
Factor #2: Niche marketing and the commodification of every element in life. Thus, composers early on can be branded, and then 'marketed' according to that brand's specs.
As much as we would like to believe that music is a meritocracy, a sharp look at the music industry shows otherwise. Effective placement and selling derive from strategic marketing, and composers heed that teaching. Composer Lawrence Dillon rightly observes that, "[while] there are many composers with extraordinary gifts who struggle to get any commissions at all, there are [also] a number of composers with perfectly ordinary gifts who have figured out how to work the system for numerous commissioning opportunities . . . . It's just a fact that working the system requires different talents from composing; some people have both skills, some people have one or the other." [Dillon's blog on Sequenza21.com]
Factor #3: Existence of easy access to almost infinite options, and the consequent need to make choices or decisions on the spot. We might think that having many choices increases our capacity to order our lives individually. That's true—but only up to a point. A good illustration is this tale from Gladwell's "Blink":
[A researcher] conducted an experiment in an upscale California grocery store in which she set up a tasting booth [offering] a variety of exotic gourmet jams. Sometimes the booth [displayed] six different jams, and sometimes . . . twenty-four jams . . . . Conventional economic wisdom says that the more choices consumers have, the more likely they are to buy, because it's easier to find the jam that perfectly fits one's needs. But [the researcher] found otherwise: While thirty percent of those who stopped by the six-choice booth ended up buying some jam, only one-tenth as many—3 percent—of those who stopped by the bigger booth bought anything. Why is that? Because buying jam is a snap decision. You say to yourself, instinctively, I want that one. And if you're given too many choices, if you're forced to consider much more than your unconscious is comfortable with, you get paralyzed . . . .
So how does 'infinite choice' affect the Composer? Developing our own characteristic style is significantly more challenging when we have available at the turn of a knob ready-to-hear music from every historical period and from many cultures. Ligeti famously worried: "I am in a prison. One wall is the avant-garde, the other is the past. I want to escape."
True, most decisions about style come from within: innate personality is after all stamped on our music, just as on our public persona. Yet singularity in an artist's voice depends in large part on how we pronounce what it is we are saying. In a time where multi-options exist for the plucking, validating our choices for how we speak and how we won't speak—becomes a critical, and much more nuanced step in the composer's evolution.
Finally, Factor #4: Ever-present music in public spaces, relegates music essentially to underscore. This one factor has profoundly changed the way we listen. As Lutoslawski observed, "People whose sensibility is destroyed by music in trains, airports, lifts, can not concentrate on a Beethoven quartet."
Reality check: Once music becomes more-or-less a sonic carpet, if active listening is meant to take place the music must define itself immediately to the listener. A work's opening measures now carry the absolute burden to declare the framework by which listening should proceed. If not, the default kicks in, and the music is understood in large as an agreeable, mostly non-obtrusive underscore. What does this mean for music that develops in complex ways, or for a composer who prefers to take a good bit of time to express a musical idea and then explore it fully? It means that in the short term this composer, and that piece, are less likely to garner wide listenership. (Unless, of course, branding can turn the trick to make complex locution fashionable!)
Luckily, our fans are out there and they keep track of what we're up to. They're pretty keen that our music stay on point, and they instinctively abide by D. N. Perkins' double challenge to the creative product: that it be original, and of high quality.
Recently David Galenson has proposed two contrasting models for the flowering of an artist's life. The title of his current book tells it allOld Masters and Young Geniuses. One life trajectory—the "Young Genius"—spotlights artists who produce a truly conceptual breakthrough usually early in their career which goes on to form the basis of much else they will produce. Examples here would be Picasso's startling and influential Les demoiselles d'Avignon, or Varèse's imaginative study, Ionisation. The second model is that of the creator who is at heart an experimenter, with the experiments coming forward increment by increment, playing out pretty much across the artist's entire life's-work ( the 'Old Master'). Examples here would be Monet, Pissarro, Conlon Nancarrow, perhaps Schoenberg—and possibly even Verdi. For creators of this type, the final works they produce may in fact be their most significant.
Galenson is an economist (University of Chicago) and his detailed econometric illustrations lead to two additional perceptions critical to discerning important works: (1) A work of art is deemed important if it goes on to influence work by other artists of the same period; and (2) the important work will be produced following some type of think-tank experience which has brought together a group of creators. Additionally on this second point: it doesn't matter how long the communal perception-sharing is—and it's not required that parties to the group be present in the same moment. Rather, key perceptions seem to ripple through the particular community of artists, leaving observational imprints which serve as creative springboards for each artist's subsequent works.
Sounds quite a bit like the academy, doesn't it?—with the addition, perhaps, of a broader intellectual circle now coming together via the Internet. This is 2006's distinct advantage! Today, composers need not live in the equivalent of 1880 Paris, or New York in 1946 in order to be working at music's leading edge.
The Internet brings with it other plusses, promoting a climate of specific and precise interests, arrayed in countless niches. As critic Anne Midgette noted (in the New York Times) in Spring 2006 "[The Internet promotes] strong cult followings to develop for music by obscure artists. [And] Classical music [is taking full advantage], moving to occupy its own significant niche." Both Apple's iTunes and Microsoft's newer Urge.com/Zune are sources responding to listeners' desire to access classical music on the Internet. Recent statistics are encouraging: these indicate that Internet requests for classical works exceed radio's 2.5% share by almost 100%—meaning that Classical music (some version of it, anyway) is the choice for almost 5% of Internet-distributed music.
Computers, the Internet, and electronic music delivery systems of all kinds bring with them thorny issues of limits to intellectual property. Marnie Hall, executive director of the independent Leonarda record label, has written about these and other recording industry issues with poignancy. Just on the subject of royalties, she's clear that "Unless our laws are changed, composer and performers will continue to dig deep into their own pockets to make recordings—in some cases mortgaging their houses—yet often never be [properly] compensated" by the royalty apparatus as it now stands. (Augusta Read Thomas is quite public in outlining her experience in self-financing a disc of orchestra music, which included mortgaging a house. See Opera magazine.)
Hand in hand with these dollars issues is an equally significant development of the past 15 years: we've lost the name for what we do. We're composing music left unidentified to the larger listening public. In 2006 the New York Times lists music under several headings: Jazz, Opera, Pop, Music and Classical Music. Where is the label for what we write? Composers today are actually in a situation similar to that of the mid 20th-century women's " problem that has no name"—a situation unrecognized and unacknowledged until Betty Friedan gave the syndrome a name by writing 'The Feminine Mystique.' The term "Contemporary Classical Music" is no longer meaningful—Mozart, Beethoven, Skriabin were each writing art music contemporary to their own period. Our arena (our 'niche') therefore, is semi-unoccupied until we come up with a meaningful term for what we're composing.
Today's composers grapple with these and like issues regularly, issues both professional and personal. We must answer questions Stravinsky never faced. Here are a few of these, in three groups:
#1 Do I stick to all-electronic sound sources, setting aside performers' interpretive abilities? Do I do this because I work as a video-game composer or jingle/ring-tone writer? Or do I decide on this route because it's the easiest way to get a lot of my music available on the web?
#2 Do I go it alone as a desk-top publisher? I'll gain royalties as both publisher AND composer if I do. But, if I don't go through the formal accept/reject process with a traditional print publisher, how will this decision fly with my tenure-review committee?
#3 What does style mean now? Do I envision music as continual flow, or as a series of peak moments well-prepared and properly led away from? Must I adopt the postmodern stance? Is it better to dip a toe into one or two world-music frames? Will I be seen as a tourist if I do this?
In short, where lies my continuing inspiration? Of course, I'm talking artistically, since appropriate financial compensation is pretty much out of the picture.
Andy Warhol asked: "Why do people think artists are special? It's just another job."
The cost of writing music is measured in both aspirins and dollars and, whether as a job or as some higher calling, composers do need to get paid for their music. The academy has proved to be an hospitable home for Composers, to a point—on campus we're connected to performance resources, have the potential to tap development grant money for select creative projects, and certainly have the happy requirement to interact with fledgling practitioners of our art, some of them even talented. Maybe teaching is thebest day job for a composer—there's an undeniable synergy with our colleagues in performance, theory, musicology. But teaching also siphons our energy, directing it away from creation toward more prosaic purposes.
Artists' lives are object lessons in frugality and the art of survival, and this shows clearly in three survey-studies on the economic aspects in a composer's life. The earliest, and most comprehensive study of these three is from 1974: Marianne Felton surveyed more than 1,500 US composers—that is, people from various walks of life who self-identified primarily as "composer". The respondents included judges, taxi drivers, composers for film, teachers of composition in higher ed, etc. (Felton used three sources for her study: the American Music Center membership list, the CMS list of composition teachers at colleges and conservatories, and composers cited in the then-current Schwann record catalogues.) The survey's results are sober: average income from composition in 1974 was just about $600 per year.
The second survey, carried out in 1992 by New York Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, queried New York state artists in all disciplines, including music composition. Results here were a bit better: 1992 annual income specifically from work in the chosen art form: approximately $2,300.
The most recent survey of composers in Minnesota was undertaken by the McKnight Foundation in 2000. Most respondents didn't choose to answer how much they made annually from their art. Instead, they repeatedly urged that some threshold income is necessary, first to keep going as a living being, and secondly for a separate pool of funds to provide support for the mechanics of effective function as composer. By consensus, support monies for composition need to be somewhere between $2,500 and $5,000 per year. These monies would go towards music calligraphy, recording expenses, score duplication, mailings, advertising, etc.
Where does this leave us in 2006? In the US, we have no composer guild, no composers union. For most of us life as a creative artist means financial compromise and perhaps downsizing artistic ambitions. In the words of one young composer who had to secure outside support for his entire higher education, undergrad through doctorate, we hear the whole story in synopsis. He writes: "Now I'm finishing coursework for my Ph.D. with a student loan bill that exceeds $100,000. Those loans—a necessary evil in order to do what I want to do with my life—will most likely hang over my head for 20 to 30 years. I don't think I'm an exception here. So, yes, getting paid is important . . . . That said, I would never make such a concerted effort to defy the laws of economics without having a true passion for what I do." (Doctoral candidate, University of Minnesota)
Let's remember: the entrepreneurial spirit is essential to a composer. Most of us manage, somehow, to manage. If what it really takes to change things is jiggering upward the industry commission guidelines to $2,500 per minute of finished music, then that's placing the bar where it should be—not by any means "too high."
Not all of us will survive as composers; but the trip is definitely worth the ride. To have the opportunity to dwell for a bit in my creative garret, hearing fully the music inside my head—"perchance to dream": to dream the dream—is a peak experience every single time. Happily, the younger generation continues to aim high, dancing to the age-old idealistic beat: As one young conservatory faculty member wrote to me (Peabody Preparatory division), "I've become very 'outcome-oriented,' sitting at the piano or computer and questioning if my new work will be any good—will it be 'just another piece' or a lasting and individual contribution to the repertory?" His question is the right one—and even more important is that he continues to ask it!
Now, finally, let me answer today's question, WHO ARE WE? We're the ones who regularly glimpse the future, designing it every day through our own new notes. Each of us is an artistic leader, a non-renewable natural resource who should be supported and nurtured at every step. Though we speak individually in distinct voices, we form a professional cohort sharing common concerns—concerns significant and critical for every other musician and for our sustaining society.
We need dialogue to explore together the artistic and practical matters we hold in common. To change the future, as Galenson says, we need in the here-and-now the artistic lift and benefit of community. So, let's start talking!
Like all creative folks I'm a tinkerer—I think of life as a proof, not a final finished document but something always subject to change, to making better. So I'll close ever hopeful, riffing lightly on Garrison Keillor's favorite goodbye: let's be sure to do GOOD work, and— by all and every means—keep in touch.