A Question of Motivation

Although I’ve read Rob Deemer’s two perceptive posts (1, 2) on amateur composition, I haven’t followed the lengthy conversation the first one prompted. Please don’t take the following, then, as a contribution to an ongoing conversation, but rather as a tangential speculation as to why “amateur composer” might be a rarer self-identification than “amateur painter” or “amateur novelist.”

First, let me point out that the word “amateur” really just means someone who loves something. I imagine that composing, as an activity undertaken in a vacuum, is hard to love: It’s not a very elegant analogy, but does anyone consider him- or herself an amateur writer of recipes (as opposed to an amateur cook)? We shouldn’t be surprised that nobody wants to toil away in front of a set of instructions with no official avenues for hearing their realization. Some days I don’t even want to toil away in front of a set of instructions. There’s such an abundance of musical practices available to us that adjoin the moments of conception and performance much more closely—improvised music, noise music, and all manners of vernacular music come immediately to mind. Moreover, these practices and their associated competences are extraordinarily widespread and getting widespreader. If you doubt me, ask the next white male under age 30 that you see whether he can play the guitar.

What is it about composing, as opposed to music-making more broadly, that could attract an amateur? A separate but related question: What is it about concert music, as opposed to recorded music or music in popular venues, that might catch the interest of an amateur? If no performance opportunities are on the horizon, one assumes composing must function as a kind of para-aesthetic sudoku, an entertaining thought exercise. Maybe amateurs with above-average music theory knowledge can get a lot of mileage out of this pastime: How better to kill a daily mass-transport commute than with never-to-be sung explorations of Flemish Renaissance counterpoint or twelve-tone matrices? This diversion answers the first question—composing is fun because particular historical idioms of Western music furnish an endless supply of puzzles—and renders the second irrelevant—concerts never enter the picture. It may also be put to some accessorizing use in certain hipster social markets.

If, however, an amateur is writing music with the expectation that it will be performed (and if this expectation is met) the situation gets much more uncomfortable for us professional composers to confront: What separates the amateur, a composer whose music receives program space, from me, a composer whose music receives program space? Years of practice, probably; several advanced degrees, certainly; any objective evidence that my work is of “higher quality” (in quotation marks because it’s a sociohistorical construction), maybe not. I know a number of professional musicians whose formal training is entirely in the area of performance or music theory but whose compositions receive regular performances, and no one can prove quantitatively that what you do as a professional composer is better than what they do as amateurs.

I’ve remarked before that in the highly artificial economy of contemporary music an ensemble put off by a high commissioning fee can always find a composer who will work for less, or for nothing at all. I’ve also noted that music curricula should take much more seriously the standards enumerated by the National Association for Music Education which include requiring all student musicians to compose. Put it together: The future of contemporary music may be very bright, but the future of the specialized professional composer is dimming fast.

14 thoughts on “A Question of Motivation

  1. Bob Paolinelli

    I am an amateur composer, not a music maker. I do essentially write in a vacuum but I still love it very much. What sets me apart is that I don’t make any money doing it and have no expectations of live performance. I’ve been composing what could be regarded as concert music for over fifty years. I’ve evolved from writing jazz tunes in the late 50s to writing serious twelve tone pieces today. I’ve udergone the same basic music education as those composers who attended universities but I did it with both private tutoring and self education.

    I perfer to create my music virtually with noation software (I use Sibelius) and some extremely good orchestral samples. I learned composing pen to paper and have made the transition to computer at least ten yeras ago or more. I upload my music and scores to my website (now under reconstruction) and offer it to anyone who’s interested without restriction. That’s how I get my work out there. That’s how I get satisfaction, knowing that there are those who download my music and scores. I’m retired so I don’t care about the money. I do it for love. I know many professional composers and orchestrators who are struggling to find projects and are not getting nearly the same artistic satisfaction than I am.

    It’s good to be an amateur sometimes, at least that’s my opinion.

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  2. Ictus75

    “several advanced degrees” Hmmm, sounds a bit elitist to me. Yes,many composers, both living and dead, have/had “several advanced degrees,” but not everyone. And what if you degrees are in physics or phy-ed, does that count you out? Yes, the line is blurring between “amateur” and ” real” composers.

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  3. colin holter

    Bob: What a perfect example of the potentials for the practice of composition revealed by telecommunications – the internet is your audience, and the knowledge that people somewhere in the world might be listening is your reward. That’s pretty great.

    Ictus75: I don’t think it’s elitist – I’ve devoted the last ten years of my life to getting degrees; can’t I take some pride in the work that led to them? Anyway, what I won’t say about my degrees is that any of them is a guarantor of success or wage-earning capability. If anything, they just certify that I (and all other grad students) have paid a significant opportunity cost.

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  4. Steven Cartwright

    I’m glad to see this discussion go back to amateurs and not professionals who can’t get a gig. Amateurs in any area have pretty much the same motivation: “That looks neat. I’d like to try it.” This results in a flood of food, poetry, paintings, photography all produced by people who have no extensive formal training and no particular desire to make a living off their endeavors. Professionals generally are trained at a more advanced level and do hope to pursue their area on a more full-time basis. The word professional also carries with it an implication of a higher level of practice, something not achieved by amateurs. Amateurs may produce professional level work (and indeed become professionals); professionals may produce amateurish work and no longer pursue their area as a career. Nonetheless, the distinction remains.

    Many people when hearing music say “I’d like to do that” and become performers. Poor performers perhaps, or ones who are never paid for their perfomance, but who perform anyway for only the sheer joy of doing so. Other people–myself included–hear music and say “I’d like to write those instructions” (perhaps not in those terms). I can’t tell you why, but we want to put notes on paper to indicate sounds not previously notated by anybody else. And that, perhaps, is a clue to our motivation.

    I think as a group amateurs tend to be more conservative in their artistic tastes. Pushing the boundaries of any medium is best left to professionals. We also are not caught up in the debates that beset the professional world. (I continue to be amazed that people waste bandwidth here wondering if audiences exist and if music conveys anything. Look at it this way–if audiences don’t exist and music doesn’t convey anything, we certainly don’t need composers to produce this stuff and then expect us to pay for it. You just debated yourself out of a job.)

    Should an amateur ever get a performance it does not adversely impact professionals. You can find amateur art shows everywhere, yet people still go to museums. My pursuit of composing led me to find New Music Box, and I’ve learned about several contemporay composers. I’ve even bought some of their CDs.

    Oh, and Ictus75? Drop the “elitist” bit. That’s a tired old trope that lost its meaning years ago.

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  5. j109

    I think you’re probably right that the sort of historical-style variable-crunching, puzzle-solving impetus is very real and that there are probably some academics or connoisseurs who do this kind of thing completely off the radar. (I think I read somewhere, maybe Wikipedia so don’t quote me, that Fetis wrote gobs and gobs of [I think unpublished] fugues.)

    About the amateur/professional concert bill thing, you’re right of course that when you get down to it there’s no meaningful distinction; only the quality of the music is important. If so-called amateurs started getting equal billing with so-called professionals, it could lead to a kind of consolidation of the musical roles in the classical tradition. That is, we would no more distinguish between composers and performers than we would people who fix your carburetor and people who fix your transmission. Of course some musicians may be known for some things more than others, just like Donny might be great with transmissions and Billy might be great with carburetors, but there may be an expectation that everyone should be able to do more.

    Of course, this puts pressure on both composers and performers to be more (or to be different) than they would have been otherwise, but frankly I’d prefer this kind of culture (Glenn Gould expressed a strong desire for it too) and I don’t think it would in any way diminish any aspect of the concert music process, including the compositional end (if Bach, Mozart, Chopin, etc. are any indication).

    P.S. As someone who has received formal composition instruction (from competent, intelligent composers), the best composition instruction I’ve gotten (aside from simply listening to music) has been from analytical literature. Rosen’s The Romantic Generation, for instance, even given its very broad topic, influenced my composing way more than any sort of composition education I’ve received (in a way independent of style, as I don’t write [neo]romantic music). Maybe that’s just me, but in general I’ve noticed that a composer’s ability is usually a matter less of specific compositional credentials than of artistic vision and pure musical chops (an acute ear, a mind for handling musical variables, some facility at an instrument, a deep knowledge of the literature). The former is developed just by being a perceptive human being and being sensitive to poetry, musical and otherwise; the latter is developed in avenues of theory, performance, etc. as well as solitary hard work.

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  6. Armando Bayolo

    The future of the specialized composer is long gone, Colin. I am trained as a composer. I have three degrees in it. But composing is only part of how I make my living (albeit a big part). I am also a curator, conductor, promoter, publisher, teacher, writer, advocate and entrepeneur, all of which take large parts of my creative energy each day. I was only trained in a few aspects of a few of those (namely: conductor, teacher and writer–not to mention pianist, which I don’t really use professionally much anymore, alas, but I used to) and have had to learn a lot of others on the job. This sort of thing is increasingly the norm, and most, if not all composers who have their music performed with any kind of regularity tend to wear more than one hat a great deal of the time.

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  7. j109

    Steven Cartwright

    “I think as a group amateurs tend to be more conservative in their artistic tastes. Pushing the boundaries of any medium is best left to professionals.”

    It’s funny because I’d naturally expect the opposite from amateurs; that is, a willingness to push boundaries that professionals won’t push, because the former have nothing to lose while the latter have audiences to please, commissioning bodies to impress, or reputations to uphold ( Kyle Gann describes this as ‘composers [playing] to their narrative’).

    Ives is of course the classic example of the amateur rebel with nothing to lose. So, as with professional composers you will have your range of temperaments.

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    1. Steven Cartwright

      As with everything else in life, it depends. I think people like myself with little or no formal training in composition tend towards conservatism (or older forms) because the models are easier to understand. People with more training are more confident in going beyond established forms.

      Ives falls somewhere in the middle. Because of his extensive musical training he was hardly an amateur. He chose insurance as a career because he figured (rightly) he would not make money as a composer, not doing what he wanted to do. On the other hand, much of his work is nostalgic and literal, just the sort of thing you’d expect from an amateur. It may sound harsh at times, but it’s easy to follow, especially if you know your hymns and patriotic songs.

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  8. Colin Holter

    The future of the specialized composer is long gone, Colin.

    And yet there are people (not many, of course) who make a living solely through composing and ancillary activities like speaking engagements that aren’t directly related to teaching or performance. Maybe these few represent the tail end of a moribund profession, but maybe there will always be a handful of composers who can pull it off – I’m thinking in particular of high-profile choral and concert band composers whose commissions and publishing deals can make them real money. (I suspect we won’t hear from any of these people in the comment area of my post on NewMusicBox, though.) Like you, however, I don’t have any plans to try to be one of them; I’m not sure I’d want to even if that path were available to me, which it certainly isn’t.

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    1. Armando Bayolo

      Wait, when did I say I didn’t have plans to be “one of those” composers? I want my hot tubs full of money, too, man! ;-)

      Seriously, though, the one thing I don’t want to do as a composer is be pigeonholed by focusing on a single genre just because that’s what pays the bills. But that’s a topic for another discussion.

      Ironically, this year I quit academia, and would probably fall into your definition of a specialized composer in this comment. I guess I was seeing things more narrowly, though, in that, in my experience, anyway, while composition is actually beginning to pay (though certainly not making me wealthy, it’s at least helping to pay the bills, at least this year), it is not my sole focus of activity, nor, necessarily, the one aspect of my work on which I spend the most time, since I don’t like composing “for the drawer” and generating interest in my work takes a lot of time and effort. I also feel strongly about promoting the work of other composers and musicians, however, so a lot of my work lately is also spent managing those aspects.

      I guess my point was that entrepeneurship is an increasingly important part of being a composer (or any kind of musician, really). When I was in school in the 1990s this was not always, if ever, acknowledged, but at least some schools are starting to acknowledge this and provide training for their students in managing their own careers, which is a very important start.

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  9. Paul Muller

    Professional musicians and composers must travel an extremely difficult path and I wish them nothing but the best – it is a very tough way to make a living. The advantages of being an amateur composer, therefore, seem to me to be overwhelming. I never take money for my music – written or played – and I have a full-time day job, so here is what I find to be the upside of amateur composing in the 21st century:

    No worry about paying the bills – so much less stress. I simply write music whenever I have free time. PCs and software have made this orders of magnitude more productive than the days of pencil and paper.

    No haggling or input from commissioners – I do my music they way I want to do it and when, not the way the customer wants the music to sound. Don’t misunderstand – the professional must have consumate skill to please his client and still be faithful to his art. And those doing film and TV work must work almost down to the millisecond – I have great respect for these skills. But at some point it ceases to be art and becomes craft and you are just another contractor dancing for the money.

    An actual listening audience – the Internet delivers my music directly to the ear of listeners worldwide. I don’t need to be in New York or some large city with a critical mass of people interested in my music – I have friends worldwide who listen to my music each week. Because there is no necessity for the concert hall as the medium for the delivery of my music, the lack of performance opportunities ceases to be an issue. Of course musicians performing music live bring an irreplaceable element to the art – and the concert hall will not go away. You can, after all, still see a play by Shakespeare at the Globe in London. But, like movies and television and the traditional theater – the advantages of electronic delivery will eventually change expectations in the the way music is experienced.

    The problem for professional composers is that their art has become a commodity in our capitalist system: we have let the value of music be determined by what someone is willing to pay for it. Bach had neither copyright protection nor a publisher – but he was valued by his society as an artist and an important member of the community. That, ultimately, is what we lack today.

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    1. Armando Bayolo

      “No haggling or input from commissioners – I do my music they way I want to do it and when, not the way the customer wants the music to sound. Don’t misunderstand – the professional must have consumate skill to please his client and still be faithful to his art.”

      Paul, no commissioner has ever asked me to alter a piece because they didn’t like how it sounded. Most commissioners, in my experience, will only stipulate generalities like size of an ensemble and length of a piece. Any time a commissioning agent brings up issues of style or substance for a specific piece raises red flags with me, which I raise with them. Usually they have no problem with that and we can find a way to work together. Sometimes, though, the relationship ends there and I move on to another project.

      “”The problem for professional composers is that their art has become a commodity in our capitalist system: we have let the value of music be determined by what someone is willing to pay for it. Bach had neither copyright protection nor a publisher – but he was valued by his society as an artist and an important member of the community. That, ultimately, is what we lack today.”

      I’m afraid you’re romanticizing old Sebastian, unfortunately. Bach’s art was as much a commodity in the 18th century as it would be today. He fulfilled commissions, was required to write music by his employers for various functions (church cantata, organ performances, courtly orchestral and chamber music performances), even wrote “on spec” in pursuit of better gigs. That he did not have copyright only meant that his work could be stolen by publishers without remuneration to him, although, admittedly, very few people were profitting from Bach’s work during his lifetime. (Beethoven–that bastion of romantic financial disinterest!–found an interesting way around this situation: he would merely sell the same piece to various publishers, assuring himself income from their sale in various markets and, essentially, “stealing” from himself!)

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  10. Phil Fried

    There are plenty of experimental composers who have reputations to uphold, just as many as “conservative” types.

    This is besides the point. Any composer who pays for their own performance is an amateur. Professionals get paid.

    Phil

    Reply

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