When composers stick to an artistic vision despite outside pressures to conform, we call them uncompromising. In this usage, uncompromising is a term of respect — even if we don’t particularly like what the composer is doing, we admire that level of determination and focus.
There is a tradition of praising Americans for their uncompromising values, a trait that is seen as particularly powerful in this country. Certainly the last presidential election showed that the majority of Americans favor a leader who scorns compromise in favor of a clear-cut vision of right and wrong.
But there is also a strong tradition of compromise in this country. As the late historian Shelby Foote noted, this nation’s government was founded on the principle of compromise, the principle of various parties arguing their points of view and hammering out something that everyone could agree on. The founders of this government, while recognizing the limitations of negotiation, felt it was far preferable to dictatorship.
Many cultures throughout history have placed a high value on compromise. Master Kong noted that when one reflects upon oneself, one realizes the necessity of concern for others. Jesus encouraged his followers to turn the other cheek, and to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. The Buddha taught the concept of Anatman, in which all things are interconnected and interdependent, so that no thing — including ourselves — has a separate existence.
By contrast, cultures that value uncompromising behavior have frequently imposed their wills on others, often engaging in acts of senseless destruction in order to have their way. (Futurist Manifesto: “War, the hygiene of the world.”)
In my world, the uncompromising composer is a Romantic fantasy, and a not particularly attractive one at that.
Why a fantasy? Compromise is a fact of our daily lives — We may not want to breath the polluted air in our urban environments, but we do it anyway, because of the cultural benefits we gain. We may not like the horrendous work conditions that the IMF has fostered throughout the world so that a few corporate executives can feel like kings, but we continue to wear the clothes that are sewn together in distant sweatshops, because we don’t have the wherewithal (practical and ethical) to make our own.
Those two examples may not be relevant to you, but I guarantee there are other compromises you engage in daily without thinking, or you wouldn’t be able to survive.
That’s why the desire to be uncompromising is a fantasy. Why do I find it unattractive? Because I am an adult – only infants refuse to adjust themselves to interests and needs outside of themselves. The universe does not revolve around any one of us – the belief that it should is simply immature.
So here’s to the composers who engage in intelligent negotiation with their cultures, not for personal gain, but for cultural enhancement. There are a lot of problems in the world composers can’t solve. The one skill we spend our lives honing, though, is the ability to convey ideas through sound. It’s a form of communication — not the same as language, but communication nonetheless. We can use that skill, if we choose (and I do), to foster enhanced communication among unlikeminded individuals.
If our goal is to prove our incompatibility with the rest of our species, then compromise is evil.
But I believe it is better to look for common ground, even though the search for common ground can be incredibly difficult. If there is even a slight chance that we can find it, it will be worth the trouble. I don’t see any incompatibility in being honest and forthright about our values while giving a fair hearing to others.
Mind you, I’m not talking about young composers, who often need to go through a period of ignoring the outside world in order to hear their own voices. But once those voices are found, they should be used to speak to others, not to themselves.
I’m also not saying that there is no place for composers who stubbornly stick to their guns, even when their guns are pointed in destructive directions. I think it’s important for our culture to have some impervious people, and I’m perfectly capable of being very stubborn when the time is right. I’m just tired of hearing the term uncompromising tossed around without any regard for its meaning and implications.
So for those of you who insist on being uncompromising composers, best of luck to you. Just do us all one small favor.
Please make sure you know exactly what you are fighting for.