Hyphenated Composers

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Like many other composers throughout our history, I have been a composer for most of my life but have always had other occupations as sources of income. Yet, when people ask me what I do, I always say that I am a composer first. The “composer first” response is true for every other composer I know who maintains multiple career identities. Why is that?

Today we honor Charles Ives as the first great 20th century American composer. We all know that he earned his living as an insurance salesman, and was in fact a pioneer in the insurance industry, yet somehow that part of his life is less important to us. Perhaps there is a greater connection between the two parts of his life than we realize. Long before Ives, America has had a tradition of the multi-tasking composer. One of our earliest composers, Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), also worked as a lawyer and a judge, finding time in between to write poetry, invent a shaded candlestick, and sign the Declaration of Independence! William Billings (1746-1800), the earliest American composer whose works turn up with some regularity, earned his living as a tanner. Perhaps pursuing several careers can allow composers to have a greater contact with the rest of society and can inspire the creation of music which has an ever greater sense of connection to the lives of others.

Although Meredith Monk considers herself a composer first, the success of her unique compositional approach is at least partially attributable to the fact that she is also a dancer, a choreographer, a filmmaker, a dramaturge, and, most importantly, a singer. We asked her to talk about the multiple identities of her creative path. Kenneth Goldsmith, who himself wears many hats, has offered portraits of a group of contemporary American composers whose other jobs range from performing and recording other people’s music to conducting in-depth research in neurobiology. To have some fun, we’ve asked Michael Daugherty, Daron Hagen, Jeffrey Mumford, Melinda Wagner and Stewart Wallace, each of whom are known exclusively as composers, what other jobs they would pursue given the opportunity. We ask you to ponder what the salary of a composer in today’s society should be, just to get a sense of the economic importance of maintaining a day job!

In our News section, we pay tribute to the late William Colvig and Vivian Fine. Their contributions to American musical life will be sorely missed. We also pay tribute to Joseph Ridings Dalton, who is still very much alive but is stepping down as the Director of CRI. His energy and enthusiasm have helped to make CRI one of the most important record labels in the business. Our Hear&Now Database features a plethora of concerts featuring music by Americans around the world. This month’s edition of SoundTracks includes 33 CDs spanning American music of four centuries with a range of living composers in their 20s to their 90s, each with a RealAudio sample.

So despite all the jobs so many of us are juggling, there is a ton of musical activity going on all across the country. We can only hope to inspire a continuation of this discovery.