How many performers and ensembles out there are willing to play new music? Probably hundreds. How many composers and compositions are out there waiting to be played? Probably tens of thousands. A call for scores can literally bury a performing group in hopeful submissions. The dismal arithmetic of composition means that that the number of composers and compositions far outnumber those groups willing and able to play new music. And even then the playing field is tilted toward a relatively small pool of composers associated with institutions, so the odds of getting one’s work performed are slim indeed.

Slim, but not impossible. Networking, persistence and determination can win out. The recent efforts of our friend Dennis Bathory-Kitsz to get his opera performed were heroic by any measure: he applied for state grants, did fund-raising, promotions and solicited donations at every opportunity. He organized the cast, the musicians and supervised set construction. All this despite the fact that his basement flooded, it snowed on the day of the first performance and even his house cat died during the run-up to the performance. And yet, after three well-attended performances, Dennis will likely have more fund-raising to do just to break even. How many of us would endure what Dennis has gone through to get his work performed?

Given the imbalance between new compositions and the number of groups who can play new music – what is the composer to do?

One obvious solution is to start your own performing ensemble and be your own composer-in-residence. This was essentially what Philip Glass and Steve Reich did in the early days of minimalism. Steve Moshier – to name just one west coast example – is doing this with his Liquid Skin Ensemble. In New York  Bang on a Can is perhaps the most well-known group.  And there are many other examples of smaller groups playing original music in unexpected venues:  James Ross, Richard Lainhart, Michael Waller and Dave Seidel in the east, Paul Bailey in Los Angeles.

Similarly, by networking you could get close to a performing organization and write pieces that work to their strength. I do this by writing choral music for our church choir – it’s not the Met but still a very rewarding avocation.

Still another, more radical solution, is to bypass the need for performance altogether – and write electro-acoustic music. The Internet makes this option particularly attractive by delivering your music world-wide directly to the ear buds of listeners at essentially zero cost.

So what is your method? What works best or least?

5 Responses to “Composing and Performing – What is the Best Balance?”
  1. The either/or dichotomy of composer or performer was an unhealthy (IMO) malady of the 20th century. Prior to then, composers always performed or conducted–their own music, and the music of their contemporaries. As someone who struggled through grad school trying to play piano AND be a composer at the same time (at one point, the Chair of the Music Dept. at U of Penn told me, “I think you need to quit playing the piano so much and focus on your studies here”), I think it’s wonderful that so many 21st-century composers are also active as performers (and vice versa). When you perform/conduct, you can network (as Paul says) with other musicians, which can result in commissions or performances of your own music. The ability to perform your own compositions also increases the likelihood that your music will get put before audiences or on recordings.

    There are great 20th-century composers who limited themselves exclusively to putting notes on paper/computer screens, but the ability to perform/conduct definitely gives a composer a competitive edge. Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Copland, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Milhaud, Britten, Reich, Glass, Barber, Poulenc, Boulez, Bernstein, Lindberg, Ades, Bolcom, Messiaen, Cage, Feldman–all performed (plus some conducted) and recorded their own music.

  2. The composer-as-performer has always been difficult for me. I came to music late (at age 14) and had no skills and no particular interest in performing; I wanted to invent music. I had the imagination and developed the techniques to do it, yet really wanted the rest of the world (a small world then) to hear it. So I ended up organizing a performing group.

    Certainly I came of age as a composer during the height of the avant-garde, particularly the New York scene, where I performed at Charlotte Moorman’s annual Avant-Garde Festivals of New York. The performance of the avant-garde was very much infused with the ‘art is easy’ notion — so my group Dashuki Music Theatre had a few accomplished musicians but depended mostly on amateurs who weren’t yet fixed in their notions of music.

    (My own strongest traditional performing skills were singing and playing early European and American music. My contemporary performing abilities were in extended voice — but unfortunately, that doesn’t last a lifetime.)

    My feeling is opposite of Christian’s, who suggests there’s a limitation in putting notes on paper/screen. First, it’s not just notes on paper. It’s a panoply of activities whose ultimate representation is symbolic and flexible, not hard-coded, and reaches well beyond the individual composer’s performance and organizational skills. More important, though, is that composers who perform can be limited to their performing tools, sometimes seriously so, forced to think in terms of the instruments they use. It takes a really long time to shake that and become more expansive and imaginative. Most performing composers never do; the rare exceptions he mentions as performing composers did shake it. It wasn’t the performing that helped them, I don’t think, except as a combination of getting the music heard and for promotion. On the other hand, most notes-to-paper/screen composers have serious limitations as well, lacking the experience (and terror) of performing, of audience, and never shaking the poverty of expression that comes with working in two silent dimensions all day.

    The composer who works in electronics and performance and recording and digital distribution reaches many more people, but does it contribute to a richness of dialog — or merely more stuff? Should it all be promoted and performed? I’m pretty easy going about it, to my detriment, or so I’m told. (But then I also committed the sin of moving from the city to Vermont.)

    So Paul’s question about balance isn’t easily answered … especially because promotion is now a big part of where music has gone, even in nonpop. There are more performer (and performing group) gimmicks in new nonpop than I could have imagined when I was a smooth-faced, long-haired composer in the 1970s. It seems like everybody wants to be the rock star, but chose the wrong part of the musical spectrum to do it.


    PS: Thanks for the mention of the opera. A small point: I did not apply for state grants. The opera was my ‘capitalist experiment’ in acquiring only private funding. The performing group had on its own gotten some token arts council funding, which I’ve tried not to use. Hence the debt.

  3. J.C. Combs says:

    “Still another, more radical solution, is to bypass the need for performance altogether – and write electro-acoustic music. ” – PM

    Actually, that is not a radical idea at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure its fairly common practice with sound installations, etc. Here in Seattle there are several very nice performance spaces, one of my favorites is located at an old chapel with great acoustics where performances are regularly held and, typically, an electroacoustic piece will be presented in the program. Sometimes the program will be totally void of performers and EA for the full concert. As with a performance via “performers,” there is indeed a unique experience for the listener with a lavish stereophonic setup and nice acoustic space. And yes, we do present a playlist of a variety of contemporary stylings at IF which isn’t that radical either.

  4. I can certainly empathize with the thought expressed here. I have spent the last 15 years promoting my music. It seems to me, that if someone wants to make a living in the field, you have to be as multi-skilled as possible. Although I think of myself as a composer, I am an organist/choir director, teach theory, musicianship at a Catholic Seminary and College, work as an arranger for churches and ensembles, and publish liturgical music.
    My strategies (albeit haphazard) have included the following:
    1. Sending out CD’s to every public radio station in the country (about 200, Received no replies)
    2. Entering competitions for new music.
    3. Sending scores to groups that perform new music.
    4. Personally giving CD’s to performers.
    5. I make a goal of sending out a piece a week to publishers.
    I suppose that this is what all composers do.
    I am widely published in the liturgical/choir field, but I find it very difficult to break into the classical music publishing field, however, I think that way of disseminating scores may be on the way out. Most scores are available from the composers themselves now, and publishers are going the way of record stores.

    I find it frustrating that there is no real way of advertising our music, without a major financial commitment. For example: To get mentioned or reviewed on any classical music blog, like this one, one must pay the fee.
    I welcome any comments

  5. Paul Muller says:

    Gregory –

    As you point out, I think most composers of new music feel that the case for self-publishing has become conclusive. Many have .pdfs ready for download or purchase from their website and the advantages of selling direct are compelling.

    That said, I wonder if choral music may be an exception. The market for choral music is large, but very diffuse – the marketing effort to reach all those choir directors out there would be daunting for the individual. What has been your experience in this? There are some organizations out there – ALCM, etc – have you joined any of these and are they of help in getting your music out there?

    Sending CDs to main-line classical radio stations would seem to be a long shot – they are probably receiving dozens of new CDs a day. Some of us have had success getting airplay but only by researching stations that specialize in experimental or new music. Here again choral or church music may be a special niche that will require some digging.

    Probably the best way to get your music performed is the most obvious – direct or join a local choir and write music specifically for them. It was good enough for Bach – it can still work today.