The Tipping Point

Ingram Marshall
Ingram Marshall

What is the defining moment in a “successful” composer’s life that could be called a “tipping point”? This was the question, brought up in conversation with a colleague, that became the focus for this article. When I started, I thought it would be short, simple, and to the point. I would interview a representative group of colleagues and, I was sure, they’d all have an event that could be pointed to unreservedly as this magic moment. Would it be a commission, a recording, a publishing contract, a great review maybe?

It turned out to be not such an easy question to answer, either on specific grounds or more general ones; the concept of a tipping point in a composer’s career is something which can’t be accepted without questioning, and what actually constitutes success in the world of contemporary classical music is no easy issue either.

Of late, the term “tipping point” has become quite fashionable, largely due to the book of that title by Malcolm Gladwell. It designates a moment when a series of events or circumstances conspire to create an unstoppable rush to success or widespread popularity. Gladwell uses the paradigm of the infectious epidemic, such as the deadly Spanish Influenza of 1914. His first example is the unexpected fashion success of a type of shoe known as the Hush Puppy.

Most of his examples concern marketing and advertising and deal with phenomena in the world of mass popular culture rather than anything close to art, so I wondered how relevant his ideas and examples would be to contemporary classical music composers. A phenomenon such as the Gorecki Third Symphony, which almost overnight became a “pop” music chart-busting recording in England in 1993, might fit into the Gladwellian paradigm, but I don’t think that heady rush into popularity changed the Polish composer’s artistic life at all; it just confirmed for him the rightness of his direction. After all, he’d written the piece in 1976, nearly twenty years earlier.

These days, tipping point is often used to refer to a point of no return, and is employed rather ominously by science writers in describing the doomsday scenario of global warming. With the ideas of catastrophic climate change and worldwide epidemics in mind, perhaps for our purposes the less volatile term “turning point” might suffice to describe a moment in a composer’s career when she suddenly finds herself successful, or feels that she has “made it,” or something along these lines. But what is it that could be called the signification of arrival in the world of new music composition?

In terms of scale, no success in the contemporary classical music world can match the book sales of millions attributed to The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, one of Gladwell’s more interesting examples of tipping point activity gone wild. But perhaps an unexpected success or sudden rash of publicity can propel a composer into a higher realm of notoriety and engender some kind of elation of arrival, of having made it into the big time.

Classical music composers, compared to their colleagues in the popular music industry, may not have the sales numbers, but perhaps the analogue of the tipping point can be useful. But we have to use the concept somewhat awkwardly. The idea might be that one reaches a point of no return, that one’s music has become sufficiently admired, bought, talked about, programmed, recorded, published, as to dump the composer into a free fall of ecstatic acclaim and acceptance from which he will never return. In other words, his or her stature as a big time composer is solidly locked in; that would have to be the idea, wouldn’t it?

There are obvious examples of composers who, at some point in their careers, went from being strictly underground, cult avant-gardists to widely accepted, famous celebrity artists—almost household names. Perhaps the most glaring example is Philip Glass. When his collaboration with Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs, Einstein on the Beach, was staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, it seemed that overnight, thanks to the publicity surrounding it, he became a “famous” composer. The cultural clout of the venue seemed to be the extra weight he needed to tip over into the limelight, no matter that he went back to driving a cab the week after the big success. Of course, the Met as an institution didn’t produce the opera, but allowed the hall to be rented out on two nights when it was dark; for Glass and his supporters this was a bit of good luck.

Philip might disagree that this was the “tipping point” in his career, but he’d have to agree that his life changed after that. Did “Einstein at the Met” really send him on his way to unstoppable success? I think it did. But I also think that had it not happened there it would have someplace else—although a staging in Brooklyn, Chicago, or San Francisco wouldn’t have had the same cultural clout.

But let us reconsider the Gladwellian model of a tipping point, where a series of small events can escalate and push a phenomenon, whether it be a disease, a type of footwear, or a book, into huge numbers (or relatively large numbers, in the case of a classical composer such as Glass). The escalation seems ineluctable, and it lasts for a relatively long time or creates a self-sustaining system.

Still, it seems to me that there are tipping points that may appear to do that but actually create a temporary rush of success that peters out, so that the artist feels he is back to square one. I suspect that this kind of situation is more common for most composers; in this case, there is a “near miss” pattern where big things seem imminent but somehow the rush to make it into the big league never quite happens. I call this the “Deer Chaser” version of the tipping point.

Deer Chaser

You might find the device known as a deer chaser in formal Japanese gardens. It’s a wooden contraption through which water is funneled: a slow drip from a source above it slowly accumulates into a carefully balanced trough which, when sufficiently filled, suddenly tips forward on its fulcrum, allowing all the accumulated water to rush down onto a lower level. This process causes a loud thwack to be heard. After emptying, the trough flips back up and starts receiving drips of water again until it reaches its tipping point and repeats the noise-making action. The idea is that the recurrent noises scare off marauding, hungry deer.

In the deer chaser model, the tipping point occurs, but it doesn’t create a steady rush, only a momentary one, and it keeps recurring at set intervals. I think a lot of composers experience this kind of tipping point, where they think they are on the verge of some kind of surge of popularity due to a big event—say a prize, a recording, a publishing contract, or maybe a big commission—but soon enough, as in the deer chaser model, they find that they have flipped back to their old position, the rush of the cascading water with its loud alarm having dissipated.

Certainly there are a number of composers who have truly made it, who have cascaded all the way down the flume and happily ride the waves of acceptance and popularity through the rest of their careers. They have eluded the deer chaser effect. But there are many more who have experienced these occasional big pushes. It seems like everything might change, but it doesn’t quite. Fame is an illusion, and the struggle to pay the bills, fight for the performances and commissions, and play the PR games that more and more seem to be required continues to color the artistic life.

Of course, there are “turning points” that are important to a composer’s sense of self that aren’t necessarily about career success but more about artistic and inner confirmation. And, like the real tipping points, a series of small events can suddenly loom large to create a major psychological shift. So perhaps applying the trope of the tipping point to the careers of new music composers is not so far fetched after all.

In the case of Steve Reich, one might think that his tipping point was not a particular concert or composition, but a recording of one—the 1978 ECM LP of Music for 18 Musicians. This music, which was originally supposed to be released by the august classical label Deutsche Grammophon, was put on hold by them—they weren’t sure how to market it—and picked up by Manfred Eicher, whose Munich based ECM label had a secure market niche with its popular jazz figures such as Keith Jarrett. The ECM recording sold something in the hundreds of thousands and introduced Reich’s music to an entirely new audience.

As it turns out, Steve Reich himself sees things differently. For him, the tipping point came earlier, in the late sixties, before Music for 18 and Drumming. It was the release of Come Out on the Columbia Odyssey label followed soon after by Violin Phase and It’s Gonna Rain on the prestigious Columbia Masterworks label. For Steve, this was a real change, a sign that he was no longer to be consigned to the “experimental” category but elevated into a pantheon of composers like Copland and Stravinsky whose music Columbia had recorded in significant numbers. The LPs were singled out by mainstream media such as Time and New York magazine as among the best of the year.

A few years later, Michael Tilson Thomas put Four Organs on a Boston Symphony concert, both in Boston and New York at Carnegie Hall, where it caused a near riot; this was for Reich another point. In fact, he thinks of these events as a line of points rather then one single tipping point.

In the case of both Glass and Reich there was a discernible tipping point, or line of them, but it was not like the deer chaser—one big gush and then an awkward silence and wait. Both these composers were diehard experimentalists, and in the sixties when they started to develop their aesthetics and styles, their work seemed part and parcel of an ongoing avant-garde scene centered in New York, California, and London. Who would have thought that they would become not only accepted into the so-called mainstream, but—unheard of in contemporary classical music—widely popular, attaining nearly rock star status?

In fact, it’s not so much that they entered the mainstream but that they changed it by bringing along new audiences that they had developed. And, yes, of course, these major turning points didn’t give either one of them a free ride. They must have experienced doubts, moments of bewilderment, and even despair on what was still a rough road to travel.

I thought I’d ask another composer—one who worked within a more conventional side of the new music spectrum—when her tipping point arrived. Joan Tower, who has become one of the leading lights of new American orchestral music, had a quite precise idea of this moment in her career. She wrote to me:

I do, in fact, have a “tipping point.” It was when Francis Thorne (then president of the American Composers Orchestra) asked me to write my first orchestral work Sequoia for the American Composers Orchestra. I was really reluctant since I had basically lived my whole life in chamber music. But he insisted (God bless him) and this piece took off like wildfire and actually changed my life in a big way. The work started to travel from Dennis Davies (and San Francisco) to Zubin Mehta (and the NY Phil—three performances at Avery Fisher and one at the UN—televised!) and then to Leonard Slatkin, who totally flipped out over the piece and programmed it all over the place, put a hold on it for a recording, and then asked me to be composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony!! It was introduced to the orchestra world with a bang and I was spinning pretty wildly after all that.

I don’t suppose this is a unique example. I have the feeling that more than a few composers have gotten quite a career lift from an ACO performance or commission. (That would make another whole article.) But Joan is very sure of this moment; without it, she may have been content to work in the more rarified field of chamber music. I think the tipping point for her was two fold: It gave her a significant career boost, enough to put her on the track of being a self-sustaining orchestra composer; and it gave her the aesthetic go-ahead that the larger forms were hers for the taking and making. So it was an inner and an outer (read artistic and career) turning point.

I posed the tipping point question to John Adams, unquestionably one of the most successful composers of his generation. His reply, a reminiscence of a night in 1976 in San Francisco, was short and to the point:

I don’t much think in terms of “career” moments. If I had to say there was any kind of memorable “tipping point” for me, it was the night of the first performance of Shaker Loops. I recall driving alone along the winding streets of the upper Haight Ashbury to the post concert party in my old Karmen Ghia, thinking that I’d found my voice, and that I knew the image I’d had of myself as a composer since I’d been a boy had finally become a reality.

So for him it wasn’t a career thing at all, but an aesthetic revelation that he was on the right path. And it’s true, for Shaker Loops wasn’t the piece that catapulted him into fame; that most likely was Nixon in China, or maybe Harmonium, or Harmonielehre for that matter. (And The ECM recording of Harmonium must have helped!)

I myself well remember the night of the first performance of Shaker Loops. John had already done a prototype version of the piece the year before with the Kronos Quartet, and he felt it was a flop. But over the course of a year’s rehearsing with his own string septet of students from the San Francisco Conservatory, he was able to craft the piece into its final, exquisite shape. The performance vindicated his work, and he was indeed ready for prime time after that masterful creation.

I think that for many composers the big turning point in their artistic lives is not a career move such as a big commission, a prize, or a surge of media attention, but the simple, successful performance of a piece that seems to authenticate their self-image as composers. Sometimes the big career moments come later. For example, Martin Bresnick, who was the first recipient of the three-year Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters a few years back, doesn’t see such a prize as a turning point. For him, it goes back to his student days, when he arrived in California to study at Stanford. During high school and college on the East Coast, his composition teachers were not as enthusiastic about his career track as he’d have liked. In the less rigorous, more nourishing atmosphere of California, the turning point for him was the composition and performance of his first string quartet and the encouragement of his teacher-mentors John Chowning and Loren Rush.

In 1969-70 he was awarded a Fulbright to study in Vienna with Ligeti, and this, too, was a big moment for him as he found himself among the “elect.” Aesthetically, he sees his piece for eight celli, B’s Garlands (written in 1973 under the influence of Ligeti) as a breakthrough stylistically, and he counts it as a turning point in his artistic self-awareness. And this is true; if you know some of Martin’s music from more recent years, which can be stylistically quite divergent, it’s not so hard to hear in that beautiful choir of celli a range of ideas that will contribute to the mature Bresnick sound.

Martin has been teaching for many years at Yale, and there he has nurtured and encouraged a number of fledgling composers who have gone on to have “big” careers. One of them is Michael Gordon. Before I posed the question of the tipping point to him, I assumed that some event linked to the early days of the famed Bang on a Can festivals might be emblematic, or perhaps he’d point to his breakthrough piece, Yo Shakespeare (in which he deploys irrational assemblages of durations: incomplete triplets juxtaposed with straight eighth notes). But he was not sure if there was one. He sent me a very insightful letter, though, about his thoughts on success and the need to go on beyond it:

I don’t know if I will ever feel like I’ve made it, because it’s not a quantifiable goal like wanting to make 10 million dollars. When you have 10 million in the bank, you can say, “I’ve fulfilled my goal.” But If you feel okay about the music you’ve written, if you can look at what you’ve done and say, “I feel good about this piece or that piece,” it still doesn’t help very much the next day when you sit down to write again. You are still starting from scratch, and even if you’ve acquired a lot of experience or knowledge about the music you want to write, you may still be struggling to find the right notes or concept.

Michael’s candid words bring up the whole issue of what happens after you are propelled out into the limelight. Do you just have an easy life after that because you’ve made it? In fact, the artists who haven’t experienced that real tipping point might be better off than those who have, for they still have that ongoing struggle to breakthrough, to finally be able to say, “I’ve made it; I am who I wanted to be.”

Once you’ve achieved that, well, like Michael you still have to face the hum drum localized struggle of finding “the right notes.” Now, there’s a certain expectation. Now, you are really in trouble!

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Ingram Marshall‘s orchestral, chamber and electro-acoustic compositions have been recorded by Nonesuch, New Albion, and New World Records. In August 2001, NewMusicBox featured an extensive conversation with him about his music.