Act Now! (Operators Aren’t Standing By)

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.

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9 thoughts on “Act Now! (Operators Aren’t Standing By)

  1. philmusic

    Um, David it seems that your means of judging composers is by their ability to get performances alone.

    This seems a tad simplistic. I know many composers who have good work, myself included, that have never been performed. This was not necessarily because of design, but because the composer can’t get a break.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s eye wide shut page

    Reply
  2. Armando

    Phil-

    Yeah, there’s lots of good composers out there whose music doesn’t get played because they can’t “catch a break.” What David is advocating, though, is that composers create their own break. His story is practically identical to mine: my teachers all seemed to have their champions and opportunities around the world, seemingly as if by magic. I thought, like David, that if I wrote it, they would come, if you will.

    Well, they didn’t. So I went out and began making my own opportunities, as David suggests (and as I tell my students all the time). Through pursuing my own opportunities, I have found passionate advocates and colleagues with whom I enjoy working (and vice versa), which has led to opportunities outside of my own ensemble and other local efforts.

    This is not to belittle those composers who prefer to work in solitude, performances or not, OR the quality of their music. Writing for the drawer, as the saying goes, was never for me, though, and the only other option for me was to quit and pursue a different career. I owed it to myself to at least try.

    I think that’s David’s point too.

    Reply
  3. smooke

    simplistic? sure, but not in that way
    Hello Phil-

    Thank you for your response; I have two thoughts in answer.

    First, being “a tad simplistic” is the nature of the beast when writing weekly columns of roughly 500 words. I am trying to spark ideas and ongoing discussion that I hope will be imbued with cumulative depth.

    Second, you seemed to have missed my point. I discuss “several interesting solutions” to the problem. The first involves working at home electronically and the last involves creating art without expectation of hearing it. I believe that these are wonderful solutions and I, at times, I have availed myself (and expect to continue availing myself) of them.

    We all find our own solutions, as long as we recognize the problem. Here, I do not intend to express preference for any single methodology.

    -David

    Reply
  4. colin holter

    Not to keep pouring it on Phil here, but I think you’re doing the things David is suggesting already: After all, surely pitching in as composer-in-residence for a brand new, fully independent opera company counts as “making one’s own opportunities?”

    Reply
  5. philmusic

    “.. Writing for the drawer, .., was never for me..”

    “..creating art without [the] expectation of hearing it [is a]..wonderful solution..”

    Well it seems that you two don’t agree on everything. LOL

    As a composer who has been self producing for 25 years or so I am well aware of the benefits.

    Opera Bob

    Look it would be wonderful if every composer who did “x” (compose) found that “y” (success) followed. Yet nothing in this world is certain. So I have to say that a tidy presentation of the composition world just doesn’t jibe with my experience. Their can be “wonderful solutions” but sometimes we must live with the ambiguity of bad ones.

    Phil Fried
    Phil’s entrepreneurial page

    Reply
  6. mclaren

    Create your own ensemble
    The composers who’ve hit it big by and large over the last 30 years created their own ensembles. Philip Glass. Michael Gordon. D’arcy James Argue. Lang and Wolfe and Gordon with Bang On A Can.

    Reply
  7. rskendrick

    Hermit…who me?
    Brilliant post David! I find it comforting that I’m not the only one that prefers being a hermit and living inside of my own head.

    Reply
  8. Waddy

    My French horn teacher at Eastman always preached to us that it wasn’t necessarily the most talented horn players who made it; it was the ones who wanted it the most.

    I think this equally applies to composers. Those that want a career the most create their own opportunities and do whatever else is necessary.

    waddythompsonmusic.com

    Reply

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