Secondary Concerns

In a recent blog post, Jeffrey Parola writes about some of the struggles facing contemporary concert composers in today’s world:

Affirmation from friends, family, and colleagues is scarce – very few people listen to, like, understand, and/or respect your music… material returns for your work are paltry or non-existent, and… it is incredibly difficult to find a secure and gratifying job.

While Parola is talking about his own personal experiences, I’d wager that most composers have dealt with similar issues. I’ve certainly felt discouraged by many of the same things Parola describes, and I find his honest account of these concerns to be brave and valuable.

Meanwhile, Brian M. Rosen argues that composers cannot and should not rely on external affirmation or compensation:

Creation of music that didn’t exist before HAS to be its own reward, devoid of compensation, recognition, or praise. If that drive for creation for its own sake doesn’t exist, I might humbly suggest that a composer should just stop… Money and acknowledgement have to be secondary concerns for a composer.

Rosen’s statement is hard to argue with on its surface. Certainly a composer has to, on some level, enjoy the process of composing. However, in my mind it poses a solution to a non-existent problem, the mythical “composer who doesn’t love composing.” It also omits the fact that external factors like money and acknowledgement can have a profound impact on one’s intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, I think it disguises a deeper and more insidious problem: that our intrinsic love and need for making music can deprecate the real world value of our hard work, and make it all too easy for others to exploit.

As one counterexample, Eric Whitacre was able to redefine what his music was worth to others almost accidentally, through sheer stubbornness:

Whitacre became known for the steep fees he charged for new pieces. A vague mixture of naïvete and instinctive savvy led him to price his work at least three times as high as other composers’. “I just kept pushing the envelope on commission fees,” he said. “It’s just like Craigslist, where if you sell your futon for ten bucks everyone thinks it’s a crap futon, but if you list it for five hundred everyone thinks it’s a great futon. So I just priced myself into a place where it was perceived as more valuable than it was.”

But even more salient than money, I think, is the issue of “relevance” that Parola mentions. It’s all fine and good to make music for its own sake, as Rosen proposes, but that’s not quite enough for me, and I don’t think it should be enough. While composing is a solitary activity, it’s one that radiates outward, as a means of expression or communication. If it doesn’t communicate, or communicate in the way you want it to, that is a definite problem, and I don’t begrudge anybody for feeling discouraged by that. This dissatisfaction shouldn’t be ignored—it’s a wake-up call, and it should be listened to very carefully.

Parola’s account has a happy ending of sorts, upon finding “complete relevance” in his role as a church organist—a role where his music is appreciated and respected. I think every musician worth their salt deserves to find this, and if they don’t have it yet, to keep looking. For me, it’s not any one particular role, but a combination of roles that I find fulfilling in different ways, from playing accordion in a klezmer band to writing soundtracks for video games to, yes, composing concert music. I do all of these things because I love them deeply, but it’s indisputable that some of them carry more extrinsic rewards than others, things like rowdy enthusiastic crowds or fan videos of ridiculous mashups.

If I’d kept my head down and refused to be affected by these “secondary concerns,” I might never have discovered these things that have immeasurably enriched my musical life. It’s even possible that I would have given up composing entirely. Maybe my motives aren’t pure enough and I really should “just stop” as Rosen suggests, but I’d really hate to see many other composers take the same advice. So I have to be contrary: if the drive for creation for it’s own sake isn’t enough on its own, please don’t just stop!

Keep going.

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15 thoughts on “Secondary Concerns

  1. Alexandra Gardner

    This is a wonderful essay, Isaac! I couldn’t agree more. While it seems that strong internal motivation is necessary – in fact I would assume it for most people – to do this crazy composing thing we do, it is totally reasonable to strive for some form(s) of external affirmation as a sign that the work is, well, working. Although there are certainly composers who work in isolation, completely for themselves, I would say they are in the minority, and that there is nothing whatsoever wrong or misguided about either scenario.

    I know I can push myself hard without any help from the outside world, but a little bit of affirmation, in whatever form, can really provide a supercharged kick in the pants! We all need to be nudged now and then.

    Reply
  2. Susan Scheid

    “While composing is a solitary activity, it’s one that radiates outward, as a means of expression or communication. If it doesn’t communicate, or communicate in the way you want it to, that is a definite problem, and I don’t begrudge anybody for feeling discouraged by that.” A thoughtful statement, one of many here, that certainly resonated for me, as a listener. While it’s critically important that a composer compose according to his or her authentic voice (rather than simply “play” to the real or perceived desires of listeners), music is a highly communicative art, in which the composer, performers, and listeners all have a part to play. On a simple human level, affirmation is a positive, not something to be ashamed of desiring. Quite the contrary, it’s something we all should have a chance to receive and savor as we pursue our chosen paths.

    Reply
  3. J. M. Gerraughty

    Alexandra took the words right out of my mouth. I can only speak from personal experience, but I’ve struggled so much with trying to find the strength of character to ignore a constant desire for “external affirmation.” I think that the desire to know that we’ve done a good job is something embedded deeply in a lot of us. We put our egos into our work, especially to fuel those lonelier moments.

    I was going to say that I envy those that can remain detached from their work, but upon reflection, I don’t think I do. For me, at least, I couldn’t sign off on a work of mine if I didn’t feel like a part of me went into it.

    Reply
  4. Brighton

    Roger Sessions wrote, in 1937: “American music is assuredly lacking neither in ideas nor in the spontaneous impulse to give them utterance. What one observes all too often is rather that these ideas fail to attain full and convincing expression. Their effect is too frequently embryonic and half-baked, uncertain in direction and inadequate in fulfillment. In individual cases we see the results of bewilderment and disenchantment in sterile opportunism or in the frank and generally futile pursuit of “success” [or] the search for a point of support in the espousal of a musical cause or . . . a frank incursion into the field of popular music.” (“America Moves to the Avant Scene”)

    It’s that “point of support” that I think Isaac successfully defends as necessary. Some find it by selling out and writing half-assed inoffensive music, others join a band to get applause, some go to work at a church. I myself play jazz and rock gigs. I agree with Sessions when he writes, later in the same essay, that playing/writing popular music is a healthy, sincere way to get positive feedback – but that it not a “final or adequate embodiment of America’s musical potentialities.”

    So we need to keep writing sophisticated music. But I swear it’s as hard as asking a girl for a date who you really like. The potential for crushing rejection is crippling and almost impossible to overcome. This is why I admire all composers, even if I don’t particularly like their style.

    Reply
    1. Isaac Schankler

      I agree up to a point, except for the characterization of non-concert music as “half-assed” and “inoffensive” (not sure if you meant it as a blanket statement or not). Speaking for myself at least, my goal is to engage deeply with the material no matter what kind of music I’m working on. A few times I’ve been unable to do this, but even these end up being mistakes that I learn from.

      I don’t think popular music is the “final or adequate embodiment” of my musical potential, but honestly, neither is concert music. Maybe there is some third yet-to-be-discovered thing out there that will fulfill my creative needs completely, but somehow I doubt it.

      Reply
  5. Ben Phelps

    So at first I thought I also completely agreed with Rosen’s post. But this really got me thinking.

    If you really don’t care if people listen to your music, or appreciate it, or validate it in whatever external form is important to you, why bother to write the music down at all? Just think about it in your head, that should be enough. Even if you’re leaving it in a drawer for posterity, aren’t you still kind of seeking external validation of some sort, albeit from future generations? Can a piece of music really have any value if no one else ever appreciates it ever? It’s a tree falls in the forest kind of zen riddle thing.

    Hmm. There has to be both things. Both the intrinsic value and the seeking of external affirmation. I think everybody seeks it. Even if it’s from a bunch of bozos it’s still undeniably nice if somebody actually listened to your music. The solitary composer is surely some sort of mythic ideal, probably Beethoven’s fault (like most things).

    That said, I think one point Rosen was railing against is totally valid and worth it’s own blog post: there are composers who don’t seem to like or listen to their own music. I’ve seen this and I do wonder about it.

    It’s all so confusing!

    Reply
  6. Colin Holter

    If I read his post correctly, Rosen seems to be arguing that composers (i.e., highly trained specialists) ought to do a lot of work for free. My feeling is that if making contemporary music is a socially contributive act – and one hopes that it is, or whence Rosen’s “HAS to”? – then insisting on fair compensation for one’s labor is surely a socially contributive act too.

    By the way, I think Susan hits it on the head when it comes to affirmation: If your psyche can withstand years of cranking out stuff that nobody but you could care less about, it’s much stronger than mine.

    Reply
    1. Brian M Rosen

      Oh… I certainly HOPE I didn’t say that. Composers should absolutely work to market the fruits of their efforts and capitalize on their own unique voice. But they should FIRST create music that they themselves want to hear and THEN work to find an audience willing to pay. Composing and marketing are two separate phases of the process.

      Reply
  7. Eric V.

    I just wanted to say as someone who both enjoys your writing here and Analogue: A Hate Story, this article was fantastic and that Jam Story mashup made my day.

    Reply
    1. Isaac Schankler

      Thanks Eric! Until now I had no idea there was any overlap between NewMusicBox readers and indie video game players. (That mashup made my MONTH.)

      Reply
  8. Mark Winges

    In terms of “external affirmation”, I think we should remember what we get from the performers of our music as well. Personally, I get so much (and learn so much) from those who have taken the time to sweat over the squiggles and make the air molecules move.

    Of course I love hearing from listeners (especially repeat customers). But that validation when someone has taken the time to pick it up from the back office and put it out in front of the footlights is pretty hard to beat.

    Reply
  9. Phil Fried

    Its rather simplistic to say that “Eric Whitacre was able to redefine what his music was worth to others almost accidentally..” This could not happen if folks didn’t want to buy his music in the first place.

    I’m sorry this whole discussion is based on the mileage achieved by ignoring our compositional (social and commercial) hierarchies.

    Reply
    1. Isaac Schankler

      It’s true that I neglected to mention that Eric Whitacre has great hair, better hair than basically any other composer living or dead, with the possible exception of Beethoven. I apologize for ignoring these compositional hairarchies.

      Reply

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