The Existential Vortex of Composition

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.

6 Replies to “The Existential Vortex of Composition”

  1. Jeffrey:

    My heart goes out to you. I think your description is one that attempts to stare at the reality of our situation as people who write and create music. The question of “relevance” is a persistent one, and I think therein lies the pathway to becoming a true artist. Struggling with and learning to overcome these essential questions you’ve identified will not only transform your work, but provide you with a core—a firm internal compass—that will drive your work through to its natural conclusion.

    I sense betrayal in the description of your education, by your teachers. Maybe too often, composition teachers try to ameliorate the stark truths concerning our efforts, instead of confronting them directly. Professors and independent teachers gain great satisfaction from having eager, intelligent, students, and it is logical that they want to amplify these feelings through building up their own work and accomplishments. That said, I think we could learn something from the studio art world, who often are much more realistic about the insanity that is their art. My interactions with artists revealed their intense devotion and self-sacrifice, but also their unflinching dedication to criticism of what they do, their students do, and the questions of relevance and ideas. How may composition studios have critiques of their work in a masterclass format, where everyone gets an equal say? I would guess that for many studios critiques only happen between student and “master,” without the reality checks that group critiques provide.

    To put this another way, run towards criticism and self-introspection if you want to be more relevant, and then make critical decisions about *who your audience is, *who your performers are, *what really matters to you within your ideas. Then from this, do away with working with apathetic performers, ignore the haters, and find your place to thrive! I will get back to you when I find this for myself…

  2. Here’s the thing – most people out there don’t like what they do. Often times, your compensation grows directly in relation to how difficult and/or unsavory a job is. Musicians don’t choose music because they want approval from other people or to get rich, they do it because they want to or need to. There’s no existentialism here. There’s no endless wandering about it.

    It all boils down to the fact that most people don’t listen to the music that you find intellectually stimulating, so there’s not a whole lot of demand for it. I’m a lot less well acquainted with other academic fields, but I have to imagine you’d find (academic) colleagues in similar places in philosophy, to name one field of many that likely face similar issues.

    Not to mention non-profit work, for example. It pays a lot less in large part because it’s a job people take because they want to do it. Gratification in one’s work is a supplement for monetary compensation, etc.

    You bother” because you really love writing music. If you didn’t love writing music, you’d take a job you liked a little less that paid better. But, as you mentioned at the end of your blog, already sounds like you got one. So – everything’s peachy, right?

  3. Jeffrey – If you do something because something inside you requires that you do it, then what does it REALLY matter whether anyone else understands it or reinforces your efforts with praise and performances? Yes, those are nice when they happen, but it strikes me that an artist who creates with public appreciation and financial success as a goal is practising a craft rather than an art (think Thomas Kincade). The great ones in any art have always been able to perfect their craft without prostituting their art, although a good many of them were never appreciated in their own time for the things that meant the most to them. Keep working, but give your work an honest listen and quality assessment, and realize that sometimes a criticism offered by a good friend or colleague might be worth hearing. A hell of a lot of us make our living in another field, so as not to burn out on doing what we do for love or compulsion. Teaching music, and performing in public, can give you a route to open peoples’ ears to new sounds, both yours and other composers’ work.

  4. Here’s how I have dealt with the issue of relevance:

    1. I write music for real situations only, ie, specific performances where the pieces will definitely be performed.

    2. I write only music that I find moving and beautiful, regardless of style, harmonic language, genre, etc., regardless of the occasion for which I am writing it, and whether it is topical or not.

    3. I write music that takes into account the pleasure that performers take in making music–in playing their instruments and in playing with other musicians–whether the music I write is a big technical challenge or not.

    That probably simplifies things too much, but I have applied those things for many years, and my music has always seemed relevant to me, to the musicians who play it, and to my audience.

  5. I’d just like to say I enjoyed your piece “The Long Valley.” I think we can all relate to the whole, “I can’t even get my friends and family to listen to my music” thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *