This Is the End: On Having Been a Student Composer

This is my last post. Rereading my very first post—March 15, 2006—I’m reminded just how much time has passed since I started making these weekly attempts to better understand contemporary music. By March 2006 I’d been a student composer for four and a half years already, and that’s how I’ve spent the intervening six years. I won’t be one for much longer, though: My doctoral dissertation defense is scheduled for today. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be leaving student composerhood behind me forever. It’s my last chance to offer some personal retrospection on the difficulties and contradictions of being a student composer; I hope you don’t mind.

I am an excellent student. My SAT and GRE scores are, by a wide margin, the best things about me. The only B you’ll find on my transcripts—and that’s going all the way back to ninth grade—is attached to my first semester of composition instruction with James Dillon. Competitive merit-based awards have allowed me to pass through several public research universities without accruing any debt. But now I’m a doctor, not a student, and it doesn’t do you any good to be an excellent student if you’re not a student. It does you good to be an excellent composer.

I am not an excellent composer. I’m a composer with a lot of bright ideas and a very low successful-piece-to-bright-idea ratio. Anyone who knows my music will tell you this: It’s a stew of half-formulated hypotheses, faulty assumptions about what is and isn’t perceptible, and too-clever moves that neither fulfill nor challenge conventional experiential expectations. It would be really swell to assert that after eleven years of higher education in music I’ve become an excellent composer, but I can’t.

It’s a commonplace that most of us write music in order to be heard, in order to give ourselves a voice in society. (The rhetoric of composers in underrepresented demographic groups often makes this desire explicit: They want to claim a channel on a cultural mixing board, so to speak, from which they’ve been unjustly excluded.) However, equally true but more uncomfortable to admit is the fact that we also write music in order to be overheard. Looking back at eleven years of student pieces, it seems that in every case—without exception—I made aesthetic decisions in the hope that they’d be overheard and respected by my teachers, peers, and cultural superiors. As a devoted student, head-pats (explicit or implicit, of commission or omission) from one’s mentors are a powerful motivator. Unfortunately this need for approbation from the field is piped so subtly and deeply into one’s sense of self that one doesn’t even realize it’s activating one’s dopamine receptors.

I wish there were a lesson in this, but I don’t know that there is: I was rarely aware of my need to be overheard, and even when I was, I developed elaborate, unconscious ways of reorienting my ideology of music to rationalize this pathetic scramble for approval. Any warning I could offer would necessarily fall on deaf ears, just as it would have if someone had tried to warn me back in 2002. Maybe you’re like me in this regard and maybe you’re not; if you are, though, you probably don’t recognize it. And now, of course, if I needed someone to overhear me, I’d have to reach out to a virtuoso soloist or the artistic director of an ensemble; if I needed to be patted on the head, I’d have to align what I do with what I think festival organizers or publishers want to see. It wouldn’t be psychologically healthy, in any case. It’s time to stop worrying about being overheard. That’s what I’ve learned since 2006.

These observations and reflections weren’t easily pried out of my experience of student composerhood. The mental exercise of writing a few hundred words a week for NewMusicBox was utterly instrumental in developing the critical perspective necessary to finish this journey. I want to extend my most sincere thanks to Molly, Frank, and all of NewMusicBox’s staff for giving me the latitude to speculate and polemicize, to my fellow bloggers for giving me plenty to scratch my head over, and to everyone who read the ever-shifting contents of my brain here. If you see me around, say hi.