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.