Where Is Our Place?

When I was compiling the list of questions I wanted to ask composers during this interview project, I knew ahead of time that I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not the artist would have an answer for most of them; process, titles, business, self-doubt—these are topics to which any composer is going to have some type of response. The one question I really wasn’t sure about was what kind of relationship, if any, the composer had with their community. I got plenty of answers to similar questions about the community of composers or the community of performers, but when I asked about their own community, be it local, regional, state, or national, very few had anything to say about it.

The lack of response on this slightly out-of-the-box question should not be, I feel, laid at the feet of the composers. Between the very nature of their creative process and the amount of time they need to spend being composers, they generally do not have the easiest time of it when it comes to community involvement. While there are a few politically active composers out there (see: Little, David), most—from what I’ve found so far—are not intensely political creatures. The argument could be made that any of us, regardless of career path, could be more active in our community in some form or fashion, and for good reason: there are too many things going on in the world today that are being shaped by too few, the overall impact of which is skewed towards those who are loudest, most belligerent, and—most of all—present.

Where I do see the most room for change, however, is the community itself. Even if a composer wanted to become involved in their community, not just as a citizen but as a composer, there are very few opportunities with which to involve themselves. Thriving arts councils are few and far between, and even those tend to lack a place at the table for a composer, since most focus on the presenting side of the arts—concerts, art exhibits, festivals—and not on the creation or generation of art. Beyond that, there is very little room in the structure of our government and communities for artists of any genre to be included in the discourse of our society as artists unless they are deemed popular enough to enact change through their own fame (Bono, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney).

Why is this important? The answers to that question could easily fill a book, but here’s a stab at it. First, the further we remain passive in our relationship with our society and communities, the less relevant to them we become. Second, the more interaction we have with the world, the more our art will become connected to it. Third, the more involvement we as composers and creative artists have with our communities, the stronger we become as citizens (and the more clout we have to enact change ourselves). Finally, we can use our positions as artists and creators to help others, much in the same way our more famous brethren would organize concerts in the early 19th century to benefit those affected by war. To some, these ideas may seem far afield to the minutiae of our artistic careers, but as we’re already experiencing the effects of a lack of balanced discourse in our country, it’s in our own best interests to find a higher place in our world for us.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

14 thoughts on “Where Is Our Place?

  1. phil fried

    Community service is central to my experience as a composer.

    I’m certainly not the only one doing this and if I found a way so can others.

    As for political composers I disagree that there are few. It seems that you are only looking for composers are currently “successful”. That term is relative after all. In addition one might draw a distinction between creators of direct political works, and those where the politics are supplied by editorial or title.

    Reply
    1. Rob Deemer

      Thanks Phil,

      I got a similar response from Dennis Bathory-Kitsz on FB…I won’t deny that I have been interviewing composers who have been successful in their careers – I don’t seen anything wrong with that. I am relating what I have found with the many composers who I have interviewed already, and was hoping that if there were divergent views from what I’ve come to find in those interviews, they would be brought to light in this comment section, as you are doing. Thanks again!

      Reply
  2. Paul Muller

    My musical contribution to society is to write pieces for our church choir. This is very rewarding and while perhaps not entirely visible to the wider world, it does serve our congregation, which is in a real sense my community.

    In light of social networking and technological advances in music distribution, I would like to suggest that the concept of ‘community’ now also relates to the composers themselves. For the first time we are in full control of the creation, production (electronically) and distribution of our art directly to the ear of the listener via the internet. In addition, social networking sites allow me to interact with other artists all over the world – so that while there might not be even 1 person in my zip code who understands new music, I have access to a community of composers who can comprehend my musical ideas – however obscure.

    I can interact, influence – and be influenced – by other musicians all over the world, thus forming a community that would otherwise not exist. We can be like the Impressionist painters of 1880s Paris or the Bebop masters of 52nd St in NYC. A community of artists listening, supporting each other and evolving. We are doing this at ImprovFriday (http://www.improvfriday.ning.com) each week and we have everything a composer could want – listeners, comments, feedback, encouragement and advice. And someday we’re gonna figure out how to make money! :)

    But the point is that the benefits of interacting with the ‘community’ need not be restricted to your just your neighbors.

    Reply
  3. Phil Fried

    “I…was hoping that if there were divergent views from what I’ve come to find in those interviews, they would be brought to light in this comment section…”

    Well Rob it seems that my divergent comments are neither here nor there.
    What is the point? Are you planing an addenda?

    Reply
  4. Brigton

    Our relationship to the larger human community is that we connect people with their highest and truest selves. We work magic at great personal expense emotionally and materially. In return, the larger human community ignores us at best, and actively censors us at worst. Politics is a toxic distraction. Of course composers are smart and compassionate; we could be valuable participants in civic life, but that would mean wasting valuable time. I’m afraid it’s not a job that makes you a lot of friends. In fact, if you’re a composer and you’re not lonely and a little neurotic, you’re doing it wrong.

    Reply
    1. David Thomas Roberts

      In my experience as composer, painter and writer, you are undeniably right. The sheer inwardness of what is required, not to mention the interiority driving the need, the “internal necessity,” makes it so.

      Reply
  5. pgblu

    Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond to this column. I have struggled to identify what was bothering me about it, and for a long time assumed it was the fact that your four concluding claims were all either self-contradictory or tautologous. While that is true, that wasn’t what I annoyed me. It’s also slightly irritating, but not overly so, that you gave no concrete examples of anything, nor suggested any concrete proposals about what ought to be done differently. I think I have put my finger on it now, though, and am grateful for your patience and your indulgence.

    Here is my problem. When we compose we don’t just serve our community. We also serve music. That is, we aren’t just contributing to social history but also to a history of ideas. These things are not mutually exclusive, of course. Far from it! Music is not in a perfect vacuum. Nor do they oppose each other. I don’t wish to say that a work that wants to directly impact a topic of social relevance needs to be dumbed down in the idea department. Conversely, ideas are worthless if they are unable to have an impact on any community whatsoever. As Paul Muller noted, the term community is being used much too broadly here.

    But these two constraints, the artistic one and the social one, also aren’t subsidiary to one another. The value of a piece of art isn’t exhaustively described in terms how it benefits and edifies its listeners so they may go out and be better people. We also don’t ONLY improve our society in order that it may have more time and energy to devote to making and appreciating art (the latter, in case you’re wondering, is supposed to be the converse of the former; and who would try to claim it?).

    If someone devotes the vast majority of their time, energy, and love to creating a great masterpiece of our time, convinced that this is the footprint they are to have on history, and then Rob Deemer comes along and says that person would do well to join the volunteer fire department, then doesn’t that admonition seem maybe at least a little preachy, self-serving, and smug? Not to mention unproductive… it totally sidesteps the problem, the productive, fascinating tension between the concerns of society and those of art, i.e., those concerns that actually imbue art with real meaning. As pesky as it sounds, we can only articulate those concerns by being the best musicians we can be, which takes an enormous amount of time — time which we could devote to taking a CPR course or forming a neighborhood watch program.

    Reply
  6. phil fried

    “..Rob Deemer comes along and says that person would do well to join the volunteer fire department, then doesn’t that admonition seem maybe at least a little preachy, self-serving, and smug?…”

    I think that its a tension to imply that a composers self-interest is for the public good. I’m not sure that I believe that.

    Reply
  7. phil fried

    Pgblu is correct that the term community has not been adequately defined and so my specific comments (it’s not like I haven’t expressed these attitudes before) answer a question no one but myself had in mind. On the other hand to narrow the definition of community to composers or say just the subgroup of successful composers seems wrong to me.

    Reply
  8. Philipp Blume

    To your first point, Phil: I don’t think Rob means to equate composer’s self-interest with the public good, and neither do I.

    To your second point, I don’t think Rob nor I wish to privilege any one community over another. My point is that the calculus of ‘value’ is going to change depending on your definition of community. I don’t think an artist should measure their worth based on the sheer number of communities (nor the sheer number of people) that they ‘serve’ – even if that COULD be measured. That is way too simplistic and more likely to engender guilt, defensiveness, and recrimination than foster healthy debate or a healthy musical culture.

    Reply
  9. Phil Fried

    Phil: I don’t think Rob means to equate composer’s self-interest with the public good, and neither do I. I don’t think Rob nor I wish to privilege any one community over another.

    A healthy music culture also includes dissent.
    –I should think so!

    My complete quote here:

    “..A healthy music culture also includes dissent.
    That’s how I might define it. Yet if you don’t define it that way then my points are moot.

    Ok. You disagree with Rob then your in exact agreement on a point that has not yet been clarified to me -sure.
    You disagree with me and then agree with me, but only by honoring part of my statement. Whatever.

    My point is this; Rob is privileging a group of composers those who are in his book.

    Reply

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