Last week, the chatter section of NewMusicBox exploded with a fabulous three-part series on the Self-Promoting Composer. Contributors Dan Visconti, Alexandra Gardner, and Rob Deemer offered wonderful advice on making a career as a composer in the internet age. My personal favorite part of this series came towards the end of Alexandra’s column when she stressed the importance of remaining both positive and generous. I would like to add my heartfelt agreement on those points and also my anecdotal observation that those two qualities can be incredibly useful assets. This river flows the other way as well. One of my (wonderfully successful) former students recently told me that she had accepted a commission because the commissioner is “is a really warm and generous person—and that’s the reason I wanted to write the piece.”
The practical advice from my three eloquent colleagues will surely benefit composers, who can be preternaturally shy about tooting their own horns and who will want to learn about how to tell people about their music in a way that helps to spread their true message. In this column, I’d like to discuss an entirely different aspect of the composerly life: the importance of the impractical.
As a teacher, I constantly find myself asking my students to consider the nuts and bolts issues of composing. Before they start a piece, we discuss how they intend to see it through to performance. We spend countless hours delving into the arcana of notation so they can learn to express their ideas as clearly as possible. We brainstorm names of specific performers who might be interested in their music. We work together to set dates for performances and to find venues for them to present their music. As the students gain confidence, they direct this process more and more until they are prepared to organize concerts of their own music without my aid. As a student, many of my teachers gave me similar assistance.
As beneficial as this process can be, at some point the true artist seeks to transcend the bounds of the possible. The composer who follows in the path cleared by their teachers or peers will never create music that reflects their own unique vision. The teacher in me worries when my students experiment, because this process can lead to pieces that clearly fail either by falling apart in performance or by expressing something vastly different than the intent of the composer. This creates quite a quandary, since I also understand that it’s only through risking failure that actual success can be achieved.
In my own experience, the works that risk the most invariably (and paradoxically) have been those that have been the most successful, whether artistically or practically. The piece that represented my first foray into systematic microtonality remained unheard for several years. The delay in its premiere caused me to question this compositional direction, until I finally did hear my own creation and realized that it was by far the best music I had composed to that point. Eventually, the piece caught on a bit and it continues to be performed, including on a recent tour of Iowa. Conversely, my most practical recent composition was a wind quintet. In creating the quintet, I focused on idiomatic writing and tried to resist my typical fascination with extended techniques and unusual sounds. The result was a work that holds little appeal for most ensembles because it’s too experimental for the quintets that seek more traditional works while simultaneously being too tame for those who seek the original. One final example would be my piece for two toy pianos. Although this instrumentation would appear to clearly limit the number of performances, instead this has become my most-performed piece to date. While the dozens of wind quintets with interest in new music have thousands of compositions to peruse while creating their programs, the repertoire for two toy pianos is relatively limited, so the handful of performers seeking works with this instrumentation find themselves playing whatever music they can find.
Many of the practical considerations for creating new pieces inherently limit the possibilities for a transcendent artistic experience. When we design a piece in order to fit into a program or to create a nice encore, then at best it will play well with others. I agree that this sort of music is valuable, but I also find that its value is limited. The life-altering artistic experiences are those that push us out of our comfort zone, that engage the audience on their own terms, that are impractical.