…When You Can Blog

A few years ago, my student-run new music organization Ethos began an “Overnight Composers” series. We bring composers who are relatively early in their careers to campus for a day. There’s no attendant concert or residency other than a couple of lecture-presentations on their own music and a topic of their choice. After treating them well once the lectures are done and putting them up for the night, we fly them back the next morning. It works out really well, since it increases the number of early- and mid-level composers that my students get to interact with (both through the presentations as well as taking them out to dinner afterwards). For many of our guests it also provides a useful line on their tenure dossiers as well as experience presenting their music to a new music department.

Jennifer Jolley

Jennifer Jolley

This week Jennifer Jolley will be joining us as our first “overnight composer” of the year. An active composer and educator–a recent graduate of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, she’s just started her first year as the new assistant professor of music composition and theory at Ohio Wesleyan University–Jennifer has garnered quite a following within the new music community, although not for what you would normally expect. While most composers become well-known because of their successes and the accolades that follow, readers of Jennifer’s blog “Why Compose When You Can Blog?” know her because of her failures.

In addition to blog posts on topics such as studying composition, turning 29, explaining why composing in bed is bad for you, taking a lesson with Augusta Read Thomas, and celebrating Cincinnati’s first streetcar, Jennifer has a running series of blog posts (she’s up to #60) entitled “Composer Fail.” Emerging from her suggestion that composers keep their rejection letters from competitions and job applications for scrapbooking purposes, Jennifer decided to post each of her rejections as they came in. Over time she has allowed the series to evolve (eventually adding photos of cats to each one, for instance). “Composer Wins” are posted as well.

I find this interesting and important for a few reasons. First, the fact that Jennifer is already up to sixty “fails” in the two and a half years since she started the series points to the number of competitions for which she’s applying. This is a wonderful demonstration–teaching through example–of the doggedness and stubbornness that many composers need to have in order to establish their reputations and find their place. Second, the simple fact that a composer is brave enough to put their career, with all its nooks and crannies, on public display is notable. Most composers, if they do take care of their public image at all, do their utmost to emphasize only the best parts. While this is perfectly natural–few of us enjoy having a spotlight shone on our foibles–it also has created a slightly “artificially enhanced” quality over a good portion of our community. Finally, one gets the sense–by reading not only the “fail” posts but the entire blog–of who Jennifer is as a person; to be honest, I’m excited to meet her tomorrow partially because I already have a sense of who she is.

This last point is especially important for composers. For as much as we would like to have our music be the true conduit through which others can understand who we are, it is increasingly necessary for living composers to allow musicians and audiences to discover who the person is behind the score. Performers want to be able to not only enjoy a composer’s music but enjoy working with a composer on a personal basis. Whether it is through the use of a personal blog–both Nico Muhly and John Mackey are deeply associated with their online musings–or other means, the decision to allow others to see at least a part of one’s life as a composer is something that we all will have to make in the future.

13 thoughts on “…When You Can Blog

  1. Pingback: I suck at blogging « Joshuatopia

  2. Mark Phillips

    Coming from a generation the long predates blogging, I still keep a folder of rejection notices to use every once in a while as a “prop” for a composition seminar or master class. Most are from the first decade my career, back when rejection letters were delivered by mail. It’s about 3″ thick and makes a satisfying thump when it lands on the table. I’d introduce it by saying something like … “So you want to be a composer? Start getting used to rejections. If you want to be successful and achieve anything significant, you have be willing to tolerate rejection.”

    Reply
    1. Alvaro Gallegos

      Hi Liane,

      It would have been better to say “young women” on my behalf, because that’s what I really meant.

      By the way I’m very interested in the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy that you lead.

      Reply
  3. Elaine

    Why would any composer keep rejection letters? Mine have all said the same thing, pretty much down to the wording. The only thing that changes is the number of pieces that were submitted. I rarely enter them anymore, and when I do it is only to help myself feel like I am “still in the game,” whatever the game may be.

    Isn’t it a shame that the way we composers must draw attention to our particular way of music writing through not-necessarily-musical means? (I guess I do it too, after a fashion, but I don’t have cats.) Isn’t it a shame that we tend to judge our own success or failure by the way we are judged “against” 250 or 600 or 2,500 other entries to competitions judged by a handful of people?

    I have judged competitions. Judgements are always subjective when you have one judge, and they are always a compromise when made by committee.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer Jolley

      Hi Elaine,

      I’m glad you asked the question “why would any composer keep rejection letters?” Actually, quite a few composers have asked me why I post my rejection letters online. After receiving a questionable look from Joan Tower when I informed her of my online scrapbooking, I kind of wondered if I was crazy. However, I learned a lot about perspective throughout the course of these composer FAILs.

      As I stated on Chris McGovern’s blog The Glass, my initial reason for posting my rejection letters began as a catharsis for my turning thirty. Do you remember how badly rejections sting when you’re young? They’re awful. Absolutely awful. I seriously questioned whether I was a good composer especially when the rejections kept coming. This stress is amplified when you’re twenty-nine years old and you only have twelve more months to win something. Anything, really. I decided to apply to every single comp comp that year, and ultimately I decided to post them, mainly because I was pretty sure every single twenty-nine year old was feeling the exact same way that I was. By making my rejections public, I was hoping to find camaraderie among my fellow rejects.

      But here’s the thing that I learned during this undertaking—we’re not rejects. In fact, we’re doing our best to get our music out there. I learned that being rejected multiple times over is part of the compositional process. Composers must actively send their music out, court willing musicians, and develop a thick skin in the process. Everyone has a different success story, and I guarantee that each success story is riddled with rejections.

      I am now happy that I can share this experience with my composition students, and that I can completely empathize with their rejection letters and assure them that yes, they can be successful, but everyone has their own way of obtaining their success.

      And, in defining success as a composer, I actually don’t find it sad that composers may have to draw attention to their music through non-musical means. If a composer can do it through purely musical means, that’s great, but why should composers limit themselves in drawing attention to their music? As Rob stated in this post, “it is increasingly necessary for living composers to allow musicians and audiences to discover who the person is behind the score.” I absolutely agree with this.

      On that note, I don’t feel that my blog is an extra-musical way of drawing attention to my music, especially because my blog specifically talks about the compositional process, whether it be through rejection letters, pre-compositional thoughts, or postings of recordings or video online.

      Reply
      1. Elaine

        How sad to think of turning thirty as a problem for anyone making any kind of cereative art! When I was thirty I hadn’t even thought of myself as a composer (because I hadn’t written anything), and I was still trying to “make my mark” as a baroque flutist during a time when anything relating to HIP was considered part of the lunatic fringe. I started my life as a string player at 31 (from literal scratch), and started composing seriously at 40, when I felt that I had something to “say” musically.

        I have achieved a great deal of personal success, but have not achieved the kind of professional success that people of your generation tend to value. Life experience and musical experience add depth to the music we write. I agree that it is who we are that ultimately gives life to the music we write, but in this inter-netted world, where everybody is trying to claw his or her way towards some kind of visibility, it is often the music of the loudest and most cyber-savvy composers that “make it,” regardless of how much substance there is in the music they write.

        Reply
        1. Kendall

          How patronizing to belittle somebody else’s composer growth experience with that “How sad…” phrase just because it doesn’t fit your own. Your experience with the baroque flute and being self-taught on strings sound like a great musical journey and I’m sure your music reflects that (I’ll be eager to hear it if it gets played in my region,) but that implication that younger composers (including Jennifer) lack substance in their art, lack something musical to say because they didn’t take a similar path makes me bristle. As a writer, my own professional failures sometimes fuel my art in ways I can’t imagine would happen without them. I think a portion of Jennifer’s musical substance comes from her maturing response to failure, and I think it’s an evolution you can both see and hear taking place in real time as she blogs about her experiences and presents her music.

          As to the trade-off between professional and personal success you also imply she and other composers of her generation make, I’d also be careful to presume too much. It is tough to make it professionally as a composer, it always has been and that clawing for attention will always be there, but there are some out there that can balance both their professional and their personal lives without sacrificing artistic substance.

          At any rate, you seem to be upset with younger composers for desiring to be recognized professionally through awards and achievements when this is the main way they get taught by the current system that their professional development will take place. I think we both agree that this is a false construct that’s damaging their opportunities for real professional and artistic development, but railing against the composers for this would be like railing against students for failing to make a school perform better. I encourage you to stop judging these competitions if you know the end result of them is so subjective, arbitrary, and more damaging to the art and young composers than it is beneficial.

          Reply
          1. Mark N. Grant

            When Hamlet asks his mother Gertrude of the Act Three Dumb Show, “Madam, how like you this play?”, Gertrude famously replies of the Dumb-Show Player Queen, “The lady doth protest too much methinks.”

            Sir, you are clearly protesting too much. Your comments about Elaine are intemperate.

            Reply
          2. Elaine Fine

            In no way was I suggesting that Jennifer’s music lacks substance, and I don’t have any doubts that you have written music of substance either. I’m not dismissing the music of a generation. Why should I? How could I?

            My comment was directed more towards the sad notion that the “cutoff” point of age 30 is that Jennifer mentions makes or breaks a composer, and my story about some of where I have been and what I have done since turning thirty is only to show that some people start on their more meaningful musical adventures later in their lives, and continue to grow through later adulthood. I certainly hope that your experiences inspire you to work and enhance the quality of your music as you grow as a person and as a composer.

            I’m also not implying that there is a tradeoff between personal and professional success. My personal success (music wise) comes from the fact that I have written music that I am proud of, and my professional lack of success comes from the fact that I can’t really stomach doing the kind of public relations work that a composer needs to do in order to keep his or her music “out there.” Composers who do have professional success (composers you have heard of, who get commissions from important ensembles and are feathers in the caps of publishing houses) spend hours every day promoting their work, or have spouses or partners who do the business stuff.

            For the record, I used to keep my rejection letters when I was young. I believe I still have my first rejection letter from a youth orchestra in Boston, but it was a personal letter from the conductor.

            Reply
          3. Kendall

            @Mark N. Grant

            I’m not going to deny that I have vested interest in Jennifer’s work. It shouldn’t be too hard to find my connection as her librettist. As such, I’ll admit I will probably be more sensitive to perceived slights toward her.

            To quote Guildenstern from the same play, “There has been much throwing about of brains..,” here, and I’m guilty of some of that, and I apologize if my response to Elaine was too pointed.

            To Elaine, as part of that apology, I think I understand better where you are coming from now, and I agree that it’s seemingly necessary for most composers to have some sort of publicity arm, whether they do it themselves or get a near surrogate to do it for them, to get noticed professionally. There are a few that can get by on the buzz of the awards that they receive, without having to do the groundwork themselves, and I think this plays into what you were talking about above about this false sense that they have to win awards by 30 in order to be successful.

            That said, I don’t know if this is any different than it always has been for composers (or writers for that matter) as I think about Clara Schumann’s role in getting Robert performed, or Mozart’s lifelong entourage (from his father, to his spouse and his patrons at the Austrian court) or the constant self promotion that Richard Wagner or Igor Stravinsky seemed to engage in, and I think the only thing that’s changed in this regard are the types of media that are getting used.

            Reply

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