What are the pros & woes of being a self-taught composer? Dennis Bathory-Kitsz



self-portrait

I’m more independent than self-taught—30-some years ago, I did pay dues in theory, practice, and history. But I quickly (and mercifully) distanced myself from the classrooms of Robert Moevs, Martin Picker, F. Austin Walter, Edmond Strainchamps, and Scott Whitener in order to study scores and recordings independently, to explore diverse styles and techniques, to compose and perform in the post-fluxus avant-garde, and to proselytize enthusiastically for other composers through festivals and concerts.

Self-study also required discipline—and demands it to this day, as I’ve never been a composer-in-residence nor able to incorporate my life as a composer into my earning my daily bread.

But being self-taught (if that’s really what I am) has also been liberating. The absence of having to learn and then discard the expectations of a string of composition mentors means that I’ve never been bound to the stylistic expectations of any school (de rigueur before 1970, but relaxed now). I have created electro-acoustic soundscapes, symphonies, performance art, cabarets, cheap art (‘music while you wait’), and techno. That flexibility has allowed me a closeness to audiences and performers who want to be involved with my work, even though that’s taken decades—and 380 compositions—to achieve. (It’s also allowed me the credibility to evangelize for new music, because I’m the guy who just crawled out filthy from under the workings of a jukebox I was fixing in the local coffee shop. A little dirt goes a long way with my neighbors.)

There is a wide-ranging critical suspicion about composers who don’t stylistically specialize … about humans who don’t specialize, for that matter. I am skilled, imaginative, and gifted. I won’t minimize that, and it’s probably why I can create extraordinary and different pieces without having to call upon a continuing student experience, or go to a ‘physical’ teacher for advice.

Because I write a density-based quartet, for example, it doesn’t make my stage show cheesy. I don’t toy with styles in an ironic or disparaging kind of way. My work is baptized by a public fire, in a world where irony or disparagement exploit audiences’ time and good will. I have never had ‘conference’ audiences—polite or rude, in a thoughtful sort of way—but instead faced listeners who have stomped or laughed, interrupted or booed, sat transfixed or walked out. At their best, they cheered; at their worst, they tossed stones (yes, they did). I believe in the visceral.

The downside for the self-taught composer is being considered by career composers to be a dilettante or an amateur (the dictionary even uses them as synonyms). So despite those 380 compositions, half of them premiered, I was quickly cut off from the academic network of tools, performers, and promotional nepotism. With some surprise, I’ve come to believe the university is less about learning from another composer and more about induction into the Old Boys’ Club (regardless of the gender of its members).

The power of that academic network confronted me in mid-career. Because I was originally from New Jersey, with plenty of collegial composing and performing city-time, I didn’t see it. But once I’d moved to Vermont in 1978, the geographical connections fell away. Whereas city composers had their own community, and university-oriented composers (especially those outside the U.S.) could move from school to school, studio to studio, presentation to presentation, and conference to conference—calling on connections and stipends when they needed them—I was increasingly isolated in a kind of rural day-job poverty. While fellow composers appeared in Baker’s, I had no one to advocate for me. When university studios discarded equipment, I picked it back out of the landfill.

It didn’t matter what I had to say, or for that matter what I had already said with my music, for I had leaped out of the cradle of the city, and had fallen achingly hard outside the academic safety net. It was a shock. It was a shock that my groundbreaking work was appearing before other similar creations, but receiving no notice. It was a shock that my former beloved city turned out to be so parochial. It was shock enough that by 1981, I had stopped composing.

The isolation also had its benefits. When I returned to composing, my style and my innovations became unique, with the kind of scope many composers go to the countryside to extract, but can never achieve because they do not live through the seasons and the scale of earth-time. Their connection with their warmth is a thermostat, and with food, the supermarket.

So not only did I not come to depend on the network, more importantly I was able to be an iconoclast-by-default. In rural America, my very compositional existence breaks the rules, but beyond that I do not need to justify my work except to performers who have to want to play it, and audiences who have to want to hear it. There are no workshops or master classes on which to depend; handsome grants go to emphasize rural quaintness for incoming tourists.

That does not mean I’m a ‘pragmatic’ composer. Indeed, the past two years have seen seven of my fourteen scheduled premieres canceled because the performers couldn’t—or wouldn’t—deal with the music’s demands. (We’re actually in an era of ‘pragmatic’ performers. I can’t imagine how a nascent Stockhausen would have fared today.) My music is often difficult; in a formal context, I’d call some of it part of the school of new complexity. Instead, I just call it my hard stuff.

I believe that the stigma of being self-taught has begun to fade; that’s a welcome evolution. Perhaps the Internet has unearthed those of us who took different paths. Even if it hasn’t changed for good, I still prefer being constantly taught by audiences, and by engaging in conversation the composers whose work I find intriguing. Collegiality is the real teacher. Then, later, I can return to breaking or stretching or innovating without losing track of music’s role in interpretation, communication, and entertainment.