As part of my stint as Living Composer of the Month, last week I conducted an interview with Russ Grazier, the head of the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center. I thought that the final question and answer might be of interest to NewMusicBox readers, and so I reproduce it below, along with some additional thoughts.
PMAC: What advice would you give a young musician considering a career and life as a composer?
DS: First, I would recommend listening to everything possible. We now have music of all eras and cultures available to us at the click of a button, and we should avail ourselves of this. Even music that doesn’t hold immediate appeal might help the student grapple with issues or might appear beautiful once it becomes familiar.
Second, I would ask the student to withhold judgment. Different people experience music—and art in general—in different ways. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any two people will have exactly the same taste. And our opinions are bound to shift over time. To me, this is part of what makes art exciting. When we declare our distaste, we limit ourselves and deny ourselves the opportunity to enjoy what we might eventually find to be a sublime experience.
Third, I would ask them to consider why they want to compose. I think too many students fall into composing as a secondary option, little realizing the near-impossibility of making a career as a classical composer. This isn’t meant cynically or pessimistically. I would hope that they would consider the various types of composing and explore those that they hold nearest to their hearts. If you only listen to film music, then you should really consider writing for film—you might even make money! A moderately successful indie recording artist will reach far more listeners than even the most successful classical composers. So, if that’s what you love to hear, why limit your audience?
Fourth, I would encourage all students to explore the world around them. We can find inspiration everywhere as long as we keep our ears and eyes open and ready. A healthy life helps to create healthy art.
Finally, I would help that student to understand that they must follow their own path.
After completing this interview, I began thinking about the various artists whose music I once disliked and now avidly enjoy, and also about those who I once adored and now shun. The former list is remarkable in that it includes many of my current favorites: Harrison Birtwistle, Steve Reich, David Lang, Brian Ferneyhough, and Morton Feldman, among many others. Sometimes my initial response was due to encountering an inferior recording or a specific piece that happened to be less to my taste than that composer’s usual output. But there have been times when the same recording of the same piece has evoked antithetical responses from me through multiple listenings.
I am curious as to what your thoughts are on these issues. What music that formerly repelled you has more recently proved captivating and delightful? What additional advice for budding composers would you append?