Crunch Time

I’ve been holed up in my room this week trying to finish a piece for a Friday deadline, which means that by the time this post goes live I’ll be deep into my post-deadline hibernation for the weekend. Finishing a piece always seemed to take a lot out of me, but the situation became even more complicated as I began to write more and more pieces on commission.

I always feel awkward criticizing the commissioning system that has become the main (or perhaps mainstream) path for getting those new pieces in front of audiences. I know which side my bread is buttered on, after all! But mainly it feels boorish and insensitive to kvetch about something that I’m so fortunate to even have in the first place; I’m sure that no composer reading this needs to be reminded just how daunting it can be to secure support for a new work. Still, after nearly three years of writing back-to-back commissions the truth is that I’m pretty fed up with the whole way of doing things.

I spent a year at Yale in which I tried to balance my earliest commissions with my role as a student; I ended up dropping out at the end of spring. I got a lot out of my time at Yale but as I knew college teaching wasn’t for me I had a difficult decision to make: leave to make more time for fulfilling commissions or stay in school to learn how to…what, learn how to get paid to write music? Not being destined for academia there wasn’t much point to staying out the doctorate, and I also didn’t feel there was very much integrity in orienting my life at Yale around my other work; I could feel the temptation to choose the easiest class over the most interesting or most useful in order to carve out more time for composing.

Since then, I’ve come to realize many aspects of writing on commission that don’t agree with me at all. First of all, I’m a terribly slow writer and often like to write different versions of sections, compare them, back up, etc. While most commissioners are receptive to building the composers’ needs into the final contract, the due date has rarely been fudge-able—most commissioners, presenters, and ensembles choose to commission music for a particular event, and they may or may not approach you with as much time as you were hoping for. Sure, you can turn it down if there’s ultimately not enough time—but there’s always someone more desperate for work than you. (In past negotiations with one small orchestra I was alarmed to actually have another composer held up as a “scab” in the event I wouldn’t assent to the ridiculously short amount of time allotted—now that isn’t good for our community at all!) Then there’s having to have your every move planned out and locked in for the next couple years—in some grant-funded gigs I’ve taken I’ve had to write detailed project proposals more than a year in advance of actually beginning the piece. Later, I inadvertently caused some consternation by—gasp—changing a few small details in the finished piece, which I was then asked to change back. I understand the concept of getting what you paid for, but I’ve never felt so much like I was back at Yale working on my thesis—what kind of composer worth his or her salt wouldn’t end up tweaking their idea when actually putting notes to paper?

Fortunately, situations like the last have been anomalies, not the norm amongst my experiences. Yet even so, I can feel the toll that writing music under these conditions has taken on me: most times I don’t feel particularly creative, and under the constant pressure of deadlines it’s hard to feel truly satisfied with work that is always being forced out as fast as possible. My desire to listen to music is frankly at an all time low. And several time over the last years I’ve very seriously considered getting out of the music business entirely.

Considering that early humans evolved when near-starvation was commonplace, it’s not surprising that our affluent society now has an obesity problem. Analogously, we composers come of age in a state of near-starvation for many things: performance opportunities, peer recognition, grants. And if we are lucky enough and persistent enough to generate an abundance, perhaps we have a tendency to glut ourselves in the same way. Early on we must learn to push for what we want, and push hard, and it’s hard to train ourselves to pull back. But I’m realizing that I may have pushed myself right into a situation in which I’m no longer able to work in a way that satisfies me. Getting back to that place where I feel good about what I’m doing is going to require a lot of changes—it may require taking fewer commissions from now on, or even ceasing to compose entirely for a time. And it will almost certainly require going back to school and hunting for a new “day job.” But this truth is that as much as I enjoy writing music, I may be profoundly unsuited for the life of a professional composer.

It has taken me a long time to overcome my own arrogance and admit that.

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6 thoughts on “Crunch Time

  1. paulhmuller

    “And several time over the last years I’ve very seriously considered getting out of the music business entirely.”

    Wow. What a candid post. You are fortunate to be so busy with commissions, yet I think you are justified in questioning why you are exhausted from the effort.

    Your instincts might be correct: music is a lousy business. But how to salvage the art?

    Maybe a different paradigm – teaching? For a while, Bach was writing 350 bars per week then rehearsing and performing – with middle-schoolers as his choir! Of course he was always arguing with his employers, but he had a steady job…

    Maybe a day job with the NEA, reading grant proposals…

    Good luck.

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Maybe a day job with the NEA, reading grant proposals.

    Thanks so much for the encouragement. Lately, I have been wondering if a music- or arts-related day job would be an asset or a curse for me–I can see how for some it would have many benefits, but sometimes I think that one of the big benefits of non-musical day jobs can be to keep one’s musical mind fresh. I guess it really depends on the individual; we may each need to move in different directions in order to find the balance we both are trying to acheive.

    Reply
  3. rskendrick

    Burnout
    It sounds like you are burned out. Perhaps you should take a week or two off and then re-evaluate to see if you feel the same way. As far as day jobs go, I have one, and it has allowed me to keep the writing fresh. But my output varies from 10 – 35 minutes of music per year – not great, so there are tradeoffs. Another alternative, is just to get a hobby that is completely in a different vain (perhaps something physical like gardening or riding a bike). I think we need to have different experiences to write about too, so just try to keep a varied life, and get away from the biz for awhile from time to time.

    Reply
  4. Rebekah Driscoll

    Finding Balance
    While I am still at the stage of wanting more composing work, I can relate to the need to re-evaluate priorities. I stuck with a job for years which was clearly throwing my life out of balance, simply because it was music-related and I thought I should be enjoying it. I’ve found many friends are happier rejecting the concept of a “career” (that you have to spend your whole life doing one thing which you are good at); most of us are more complex than that. Sometimes it pays to work in an area where you are not an expert, at least for awhile, if you are feeling the need to learn something new. At any rate, I think it’s a good sign that you are giving all this some thought, and I wish you luck achieving a fulfilling mix of work and leisure.

    Reply
  5. mdwcomposer

    Thanks for a very sensitive and honest post, Dan.

    It’s always hard to find a life that feeds your composing rather than sucks it away. Saying “no” is hard in general, because you’re saying it in response to something (at least in theory) that you love. However, maybe some tough love with yourself is in order.

    At this stage, you may have enough behind you (pieces written, name out in public, etc.) that your fear of “if I say no too many times, no one will call me anymore” may be less real than you think. I certainly know of a lot of free-lance performers who feel the same way – they become gig-pigs not only for financial reasons, but because they fear if they say “no”, they won’t be first call anymore. And as a result not only do they not enjoy what they do as much, but they also don’t play as well. All of which to say that you’re not alone in worrying about the “no”.

    Choosing the Charles Ives lifestyle has advantages and disadvantages, just like any other choice in life. Personally, I’ve been able to make the non-music part of my life work for me and my love of and passion for composing. It isn’t perfect, but the lack of perfection doesn’t keep me from composing.

    Here’s my observation: lots of postings and articles on the career of composing, how to organize your life as a composer, etc. But I think that there is a good deal of creativity needed in how you think about the choices of making your life. Not just the choices in the making-the-dots process. And a good deal of honesty about who you are and the way you work, which your post addresses.

    Having said those generalities, there’s one detail you don’t cover. Of the nearly three years of writing back-to-back commissions, you don’t say whether they were of similar genres (e.g. chamber music) or required similar processes. I find that one thing that keeps my interest up is by mixing up types of projects (a chamber piece, then a vocal piece, then a solo piece, etc.). Or that a radically different function for a piece (concert piece, versus background music for a play, versus an arrangement of a shape-note tune) keeps my view fresh.

      &nbsp
    Mark Winges

    Reply
  6. danvisconti

    I certainly know of a lot of free-lance performers who feel the same way – they become gig-pigs not only for financial reasons, but because they fear if they say “no”, they won’t be first call anymore.

    Hi Mark–thanks for your comments, especially the above; I think that’s a mentality I have certainly fallen prey to a few times, and it’s true that sitting one out on the bench doesn’t tank your carreer…writing some lame, half-assed sketch of a piece does.

    Regarding changing it up with each piece: I think that’s a great tip, and it is one that I try to employ whenever possible. Strangely, I once had to do back-to-back string quartets and I didn’t find it terribly offputting (though that’s not to say I would have relished a third). It actually became a good opportunity to make a decision to strike out in very different directions in each piece–had I written the latter ten years later, I may have written an updated rehash of the former rather than something distinctly different

    Reply

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