A few weeks ago, I linked to the post “Much Ado About Doing Nothing” by Ralph Kendrick with the promise that I would return to the issues he raised. In that column, Ralph asked that composers take creative action in order to realize their artistic ambitions rather than waiting for the world to come to them. Last week on NewMusicBox, Colin Holter discussed a high school composer training institute in which young composers performed each other’s works. To me, these two ideas are inextricably linked.
When I was beginning my composing career, I kept waiting for advocates and opportunities. The models that I encountered in my academic career were composers who had been championed by conductors or performers. In my naïve understanding, I believed that these musical giants sat idly by while their music circumnavigated the globe. I wrote the music that interested me at the time and I waited. And waited. And waited some more. (I can be extraordinarily patient.)
I kept encountering performers who would tell me how much they liked my music and would promise to perform pieces if I could find a venue or would express their desire to commission if funding could be found. Gradually, the realization began to dawn that this would be how my career would work. That there is no magic panacea and instead I would need to create my own opportunities. And, indeed, as I began to labor alongside these advocates, my career slowly and infinitesimally began to blossom.
Of course, this is unfair! We should be judged solely on our music. And most composers prefer hermitages in quiet rooms rather than time spent outside our heads. But there is an astonishing surplus of talented creators who constantly create beautiful new art, so the only way to guarantee that our music will reach the light of day is to organize our own means of production.
I have seen artists enact several interesting solutions to this conundrum. Composers can create electronic pieces at home and distribute them on the internet without ever needing to interact with others. Many musicians advocate for their own pieces (and the music of others) as instrumentalists, singers, and conductors. Some create ensembles or even orchestras where their organizational skills and vision substitute for (or supplement) performing talent. Finally, some composers find themselves writing gloriously impractical works without ever expecting to hear them performed. Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s sketches for a mile-high building, these pieces exist solely on paper, and yet these composers can take the lessons learned from these experiments and apply them into pieces that—while they stretch the boundaries of the probable—are not impossible.
To me now, it appears that the most successful artists are those who have chosen one of these paths with open eyes and who have accepted the challenges and opportunities they encounter on their journeys.