Later today, I will have reached 40. It’s a number I’ve been looking forward to for quite a long time. No, if you are wondering, today is not my birthday. Later today (this first Friday of November) I will be conducting my fortieth interview with a composer since I began this adventure almost 18 months ago.
Because composition education has created a feedback loop; there is an overriding perception by most musicians and non-musicians that composition is something that only a very few extremely talented individuals can and should pursue, and that perception creates a self-fulfilling prophecy through a lack of composition education at the pre-college level.
There are few topics that I cover in my interviews with composers in which I feel the need to “be careful.” I’ve never worried about a reaction to an inquiry about one’s own creative process, history and background, or teaching philosophy. There is one topic, however, that I do feel the need to tread lightly around, and that is the concept of commissions. There are several reasons to be cautious when discussing commissions with a composer, not the least of which is that it is the closest you are going to get to discussing their own personal finances.
I’m currently taking part in a three-day conference about community engagement and the arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sponsored by Imagining America. Based on both the presenters and audiences so far, it’s interesting to see which art forms are active on this front (theatre, visual arts, poetry, and dance) and which forms are not well represented in the discussion (music, and specifically concert music).
Topics such as curriculum, assessment, and education rarely emerge in discussions concerning contemporary concert music. When they do, they and the academic institutions they are fostered in tend to be portrayed in a negative light (see Tower, Ivory) by composers and performers alike. This is, I feel, completely natural, since part of the process of becoming a mature creative artist is to in some way reject or stand apart from that which taught us, lest we find ourselves in the musical equivalent of living in our parents’ basement.
I try to finish each of my composer interviews with questions about the future—where each composer sees contemporary music headed, any new trends they may be aware of, etc., but also what projects they themselves are looking forward to tackling in the next five to ten years. While answers to this last question have spanned the gamut as you might expect, one particular genre has cropped up as the easy frontrunner.