What are the pros & woes of being a self-taught composer? Don Dilworth



Photo by Mark Livshits

Thoughts of a Self-Taught Composer

The experience of a self-taught composer is very different from that of a conservatory graduate. First, why did I go that way? When I interviewed at a conservatory in my youth and asked whether I should enroll there, they said no — saying that I would not be able to find a job. I always take good advice, so I majored in physics at MIT instead. No employment problem, ever, but now I’m on that road and there’s no going back.

Why does it matter? I don’t think the education itself is much of an issue. I’ve heard superb music by unschooled composers (Telemann, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others) and perfectly awful music by credentialed but uninspired hacks. There are thousands of composers today who didn’t get the good advice I got, evidently, and now write music according to the rules of their teacher, who couldn’t get any job except teaching, which is what most of them will also have to do, turning out yet more thousands of composers. There is a pattern here.

Before I get too hard on the establishment, let me say that I do indeed enjoy and respect the music of some who have gone through a conservatory. About five percent of them in fact. The rest don’t get it. I am convinced that the purpose of music is to create an aesthetic experience in an educated listener. Yet I have heard music that sounds like when the waiter drops the dishes. I’ve heard the orchestra tuning up, making a racket, everyone playing something different — and then I saw the conductor waving his arms. This is nonsense. There was a “concert” near where I live where they hoisted a piano by a crane over a parking lot — and dropped it. How often can you listen to forearms on the keyboard very loud? Now, I like modern music very much. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók. But the official schools of composition today have lost touch with the fundamental truths about music, which relate to how our human brains are wired to process sound.

And they have also lost touch with their audience, and that’s the hardest part of being self-taught. With so many composers and not much of an audience left (they having been burned once) competition for performance slots is brutal. Quality isn’t an issue. It’s all a matter of whom you know and what’s on your resume. The old-boy network. Of course nobody will play your music, because they can’t sell tickets, because nobody has heard of you, because nobody will play your music. Another pattern here?

I’ve heard opinions from people in very high places. “It’s impossible for you to be a composer, because you did not study at a conservatory.” “That’s no good—it sounds like Brahms.” “If a passage can be given to the second violins, it must not be given to the violas” and so on. Save me from these conservatory graduates!

The reward for being obscure is the knowledge that you have written a masterpiece, never mind that nobody knows. Deep down, this is the greatest thrill of all. I am satisfied that if the audience ever has a chance to hear what I have written, they will cry out for more.