A recent New York Times Magazine profile of the excellent actor Peter Dinklage ends with him considering how happy he feels that he has been able to form a career playing complex characters in interesting projects. Dinklage has a very specific look and, like many different types of film and theater hopefuls, found that Hollywood wanted to typecast him into demeaning roles. He refused all of these parts, despite their alluring promise of making quick cash while working in his chosen field. In thinking about how far he has come, he said:
“I feel really lucky, although I hate that word—‘lucky.’ It cheapens a lot of hard work. [...] Living in Brooklyn in an apartment without any heat and paying for dinner at the bodega with dimes—I don’t think I felt myself lucky back then. Doing plays for 50 bucks and trying to be true to myself as an”—here he put on a faux snooty voice—“artist and turning down commercials where they wanted a leprechaun. Saying I was lucky negates the hard work I put in and spits on that guy who’s freezing his ass off back in Brooklyn. So I won’t say I’m lucky. I’m fortunate enough to find or attract very talented people. For some reason I found them, and they found me.
I am struck by his formulation of the distinction between being blithely lucky as opposed to toiling at great cost and persevering through the great difficulty until finally being fortunate enough to find similarly minded people who recognize your talent. He recognizes that he owes his success to the kindness of others. He understands without those people, who have faith in him and in his vision, that he never would have been able to pursue the sorts of projects that interest him. And yet he also refuses to diminish the risks he took and the hardship he endured in order to maintain his artistic vision.
Since music is at heart a performance art, any degree of success in composition generally necessitates engendering excitement among possible supporters. For the most part, we need to inspire faith in performers and concert presenters in order to be able to present our pieces to the wider world. The act of bringing our music to life is essentially an act of collaborative artistry, but put to the service of projects that we conceive and create in hermetic solitude as part of a singular vision. Thus, music composition remains an essentially oxymoronic art form—it is inherently both collaborative and soloistic. Without an individual vision our music remains uninspiring, but without the assistance of others our music remains inanimate.
Budding composers who read Dinklage’s quote should take note of the two paths he proposes for artistic hopefuls. The path of least resistance would entail accepting the usual offers, whether or not they hold interest for you and even if you find them repellant or abhorrent. Those who chose this path might be guaranteed a measure of initial success and might find their ability to live comfortably while pursuing their art form helps them to continue in the field. The more difficult path involves remaining true to yourself despite society’s resistance, following your internal compass even as the greater world offers you enticing opportunities to deviate from your chosen course.
Those of you who follow the second path might eventually reap the fruits of your labors. Doing so would require a great deal of fortune, but would not mean that you are simply lucky.