While I was seeking advice from a relatively well-known composer a couple of years ago, she asked me to tell her my compositional goals. I launched into a lengthy explanation as to what sorts of pieces I wanted to work on immediately and how those would help me to develop skills for my future projects, what I perceived to be the flaws in my current compositional voice and how I would correct these deficiencies as I moved forward. When I finished, she looked at me with an odd expression on her face, and then commented by saying that, although she liked my answer, that most people responded to that query by stating their career aspirations.
In the years that have followed, I often have thought about this exchange. To me, the whole point of having a compositional career is to increase my ability to achieve my artistic dreams. If I wanted monetary success, I never would have left my first work field in order to go to graduate school. If I wanted fame or to reach as many people as possible, I would have focused on popular music or composing for films or video games. I followed this path because I had a creative itch, and there was no other way to scratch it.
I think that it’s emotionally unhealthy to set goals that lie beyond the realm of what we possibly can control. We can create art that more clearly expresses our ideas, but we absolutely cannot predict how that art will be perceived by any specific audience, no matter whether that audience is an awards jury or a programming committee or the crowds at our local symphony’s subscription concerts. If we want to write a beautiful opera and have it produced in a fully staged version, we can set aside time to compose the piece, then fundraise over years until that dream is realized. If our main objective is to have the Met commission an opera from us, then the process becomes far less relevant to the work itself and greatly dependent upon factors beyond ourselves. I think that it’s important to place our goalposts carefully so that we always will be striving towards creating a better product.
The main reason why I’m considering this issue right now is because of a recent post on Fluting High, the blog of Helen Bledsoe, the flutist for musikFabrik. First, I’d like to take a moment to recommend this blog in general for all composers. She writes quite clearly on many aspects of new music from a performer’s perspective, giving advice on topics as useful as how composers can notate microtones in order to make them more legible for interested performers, and a step-by-step guide on how to teach yourself to play the difficult embedded tuplets found in the music of composers like Xenakis and Ferneyhough (yes, each step is remarkably difficult).
In this post, however, Bledsoe discusses the intricacies of the “Vision Training” that her ensemble has been following in order to help them grow as an ensemble. In her assessment, the focus of this exercise is far too heavily weighted towards perception, with little consideration of the product itself. In short, the ideas generated in these seminars rarely relate to methods for improving musicianship, instead focusing on topics like audience outreach.
I whole-heartedly agree with the conclusion she draws, and so I’d like to simply quote it:
As musicians […] when you ignore the music, when you ignore the basic precepts of artistic integrity (be genuine, don’t compare yourself to others), you gonna die. Even if you don’t immediately expire, you will suffer the indignity of being back where you started. Like a revolving door.