A few weeks ago I wrote a post that extolled the virtues of writing for a variety of genres, instrumentations, and experience levels. The tone of it didn’t feel right at the time and so I asked that it not be published, and yet that topic has been gnawing at me ever since. In my role as an educator for young composers, I am continually assessing the breadth of their portfolios and encouraging or assigning them to write for as many different mediums as they can in order to ensure they have a strong educational foundation. At the same time, once my students graduate and begin their own careers, the question as to who decides what types of works they will compose is as important as it is unclear.
Early in a composer’s career, it’s common for their compositional medium to be decided by both their instructors and by circumstance. The teacher will most likely assign or suggest the scope and medium of each work with the availability of performers and ensembles in mind. This is a good thing for two main reasons. First, there are several instances in which a composer’s catalogue of works is analyzed for breadth; applications for graduate study as well as teaching positions are often scrutinized for “too much focus” in one area or another. Second, young composers tend to either write for a very limited palette (e.g. solo piano or string quartet) that is directly within their comfort zone or over-extend and attempt massive orchestral or band works (often through the magic of cut-&-paste) without a clue or a care.
As composers mature through their studies, they are usually expected to decide what they want to write. While they’ll still be studying with mentors, that freedom to explore on their own is an important step in their development. I’ve often seen composers at this level begin to explore the extremes of breadth (experimenting with obscure instruments, complex techniques, or concept-based methods) or depth (writing several works within the same genre or instrumentation). It is at this point that they begin to create a sense of control over their growing body of works, a sense that could easily affect what direction their career will take in the long term.
Where it gets interesting is when there are no more assignments or easily-accessed performers or department recitals. Once that cord is cut, composers are still affected by circumstance—even more so than before—but they’re also in the position where their decisions carry important ramifications. As commissions are accepted or projects are undertaken, patterns can emerge rather quickly that can form strong external associations. If a composer writes three works for wind band in a row early on, for instance, they have begun to create a reputation within that community which can be a powerful advantage. That being said, they’ve also placed themselves at a crossroads: should they take on the next wind ensemble commission and solidify their place in the “band world” or dig into a cello sonata for their best friend or write that chamber opera that they’ve always wanted to tackle?
The same could be said for questions about style, harmonic language, or concept. After one piece is done, the next piece will bring a conundrum: do I go in the same direction as before or do I try something new? The more consistent one’s style and language are, the easier it is for a select group of performers and listeners to form a strong relationship with a composer over time. Conversely, less consistency can increase the variety and numbers of performers and audiences that enjoy a composer’s works (even if that enjoyment is based on a single work).
A catalogue can be thought of as simply a “works” page on a website that can assist others in finding a particular piece, but it can also mean much more. As creative artists, we can’t help but be affected by the works we have already made, not only in how others view us, but in how we choose to write our next piece. Each of us may decide at times to be strategic in our decisions or to throw caution to the wind and take some risks, but as long as we are aware of this “choose-your-own-adventure” situation, we can still maintain a modicum of control over our body of works.