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.