Bio Hazards

If you haven’t read Randy Nordschow’s piece on composer bios, read it right away (then come back here immediately). It’s great—so great that I couldn’t resist ganking his subject for further exploration.

My impression is that grad students’ bios tend to be written extensions of the elaborate, agonistic rituals we sometimes perform upon meeting one another in person; in order to quickly establish who’s better, we try to weave our resumes into what is supposed to be introductory small talk. This behavior is so ingrained as to be almost reflexive when confronted with a peer who might be more successful. Of course, neither the names we drop nor our rate of names dropped per minute has anything to do with our actual music per se: I had such a conversation with a colleague from the University of Michigan a few months ago, and after maybe half an hour of talking ostensibly about music, all we’d really done was to draft a sort of pecking order. (I’m not the best composer at the University of Illinois, but I am without a doubt the name-droppingest. And this Michigan composer name dropped me under the table. It was humbling.) Moreover, I’m sure onlookers find it embarrassingly transparent. For all I know, however, more experienced composers may take part in a subtler version of the same practice.

At any rate, as Randy points out, our text bios are often limited to this kind of credential plumage. It’s one thing to talk about mounting a coup, though, and another to actually refashion one’s bio along less conventional, more meaningful lines. Who wants to be the only composer on the program whose bio doesn’t read like Res Gestae? I propose, then, that composers might undertake this project in groups. If you belong to a circle of like-minded composers who are familiar with your aesthetic concerns, ask one of them to write your bio for you (and offer to write his or hers in return). Note prizes and teachers and degrees if necessary, but emphasize the features of your colleague’s musical and biographical background that are especially interesting or germane—now that’s something that listeners might find useful in unpacking a new piece.

Frankly, I don’t particularly care if you won a Kranichsteiner Musikpreis, and I, unlike most audience members, enjoy the advantage of knowing what a Kranichsteiner Musikpreis is. But if I can read your bio and ascertain a few characteristics of your music and why they’re important to you, I’ll be situated much better to appreciate what you do.

6 thoughts on “Bio Hazards

  1. kmanlove

    Not to be flippant or anything, but I’m seriously asking this question… Do you prefer the boring bio of which you speak, or one more like this: “Keith Manlove is a space alien from the planet Remdor. He has written all the music of the world and won every prize. Keith cannot be taught but is the teacher of many. Lou Gehrig had 174 RBIs in 1930.” Eeesh. Though the second is less frequent, it still hurts my teeth.

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  2. Colin Holter

    I guess of those two options I’d prefer the standard boilerplate, but I think you’re presenting a deliberately extreme counter-example. Although there are composers out there who have over-the-top bios like the one you posted (and I would encourage them to get serious or get out of the kitchen), I think you’d agree that the CV-type bio is much more common.

    Ideally, a bio is factual but interesting. As someone pointed out on the other post’s discussion, there should be something besides teachers and prizes that explains where your music is coming from. And it goes without saying that you shouldn’t have to make extravagant fabricated claims – such as, for example, that Sirius is your star of origin, or that your name must be spelled differently every time it appears in print.

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  3. kmanlove

    Good bios and program notes can really be the Nutella of the composition world. The program notes we speak of… maybe the government cheese of the composit… I haven’t really worked that out yet. I do prefer the written kind to pre-concert talks. Ick.

    Sirius is my star of origin. I also invented the treble clef.

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  4. Colin Holter

    I invented the note G. It seems like a huge breakthrough, I know, but after the invention of C, it was just a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants. Of course, G is in the public domain now, but for a while I was making an absolute killing.

    Yeah, this is not the kind of thing you should have in your bio.

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  5. jbunch

    I like your idea of composers writing one another’s bio’s. It could be interesting to hear what somebody ELSE thinks my music means, than for me to “spoil the surprise.” Besides, I think we could all learn a lot more from listening to those kinds of reactions than by counting on our own pontifications which are often blinded by the fact that we are too close to our own music to really be able to judge it rightly.

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