To be a “contemporary concert composer” (for lack of a better term) is a lonely existence.
How often do you suppose that friends and family give your music a listen? And if they do, do they enjoy, or even understand, it? How often do you suppose that composer-colleagues really give your music a listen without dismissing your work as trite or masturbatory or academic (in the worst possible sense)? How often do performers love to play your work and champion it and expose it to audiences? And when was the last time you were fairly paid for the blood, sweat, and tears that it took to create your last commission? Were you paid at all?
To add insult to injury…
You enrolled in a doctoral program in composition, worked your behind off as a student and a teaching assistant, struggled to pay the bills with minimal income and a few odd-jobs on the side, hoped that one day you would have that golden teaching job at __________ University. You imagined a salary with benefits wrapped up in a job that is relevant to what you do as a composer. Theory, aural skills, etc.
Except two things: 1. Jobs are scarce in the field, and since the economy tanked, budgets have been cut, programs reduced or eliminated, and new hires are rare. You might be lucky to get an adjunct college job in [insert terrible locale here]. 2. You finally land the job, but you find that most of your students can’t stand you, not because you’re a bad person, but simply because you teach theory and aural skills, and you are the incarnate image of the two most hated subjects in music-academia.
So let’s summarize. For composers, 1. affirmation from friends, family, and colleagues is scarce – very few people listen to, like, understand, and/or respect your music, 2. performers, the people who you really need to support you, are pretty apathetic about most new music, especially yours, 3. material returns for your work are paltry or non-existent, and 4. after four-to-six years of working toward a doctorate, it is incredibly difficult to find a secure and gratifying job.
So, why do we do it? I sincerely ask this question, as I do not have an answer. I encourage people to answer this question if they have the answer, and to share it in the comments below.
The thing is, I left composition from 2005-2008. I became a high school music teacher, and I felt useful, indispensable, helpful, and valuable. I felt like I was doing something for others, for the community, for the world. It felt great!
But it wasn’t enough. I needed composition, even though I still don’t understand why. So, I re-entered the world-of-composition, despite its sad state, knowing full well the issues I just addressed.
Are we crazy? Are we masochists? What is this exactly?
The reason I bring this concern to my blog now is because I’ve found something that has given me some hope in my musical career. I’ve had many music jobs, some fulfilling, some not-so, but all-in-all good experiences.
But, since I landed an organist position at a local church, for the first time I am gratified on all levels: people enjoy, care about, and deeply appreciate what I do, my role is treated with dignity and respect, I get a regular paycheck for it, and every moment spent at that organ console is a deep artistic journey, just like composition, but with all the perks! It is a wonderful feeling, and I wonder why more of us aren’t looking for this.
I’ve found something, and it’s something important: complete relevance. I call it “complete” relevance because the type of relevance I have found here is lacking in no way.
Most contemporary concert composers struggle with this idea of “relevance.” Some try to be “more relevant” by appealing to pop-loving audiences, others by appealing to academia, some by following a current trend, others by trying to establish a new one. In the end, few actually become relevant because the audience is so small and fractured, and the mission of new concert music is so vague, varied, and undefined that it is near-impossible to make a large-scale impact.
Hence the endless series of existential crises.
For me, to not have something, and then to have it, offers some insight into the nature of both states. Relevance, in my opinion, IS important, because it not only affirms the personal value you place on what you do, it also remains to be valuable beyond and outside of you.
It may be that the old channels and avenues of relevance for composers have passed their expiration date, which means we probably have to think outside of the box. I am aware that some are trying, but is it working? Who’s doing it?
I’d prefer not to be complacent with our irrelevance, so I have laid my heart bare in this post to stir the pot. Perhaps my, rather negative and cynical, testimony will encourage conversation about how we might open up some productive avenues in the pursuit of new composition’s current and future vitality.