Archive for the “Composer Survival Strategies” Category

carsonComposer Carson Kievman has been fighting the good fight for classical music in South Florida at his SoBe Institute of the Arts, just off Miami Beach’s fabled, chic South Beach, and he could use a little love from the contemporary music community for his latest symphonic project.

A student of Olivier Messaien, Luigi Nono and Earle Brown, among others, Kievman worked with Joseph Papp and his Public Theater, and has taught at Princeton, Montclair State, Kean and Tory universities, and was the composer-in-residence for the Florida Philharmonic. He founded the SoBe Institute in 2005, where he recently welcomed John Corigiliano for a concert of his music featuring violinist Lara St. John, violist Kim Kashkashian and cellist Matt Haimovitz.

Kievman is in the last couple days of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $35,000 to fund a recording of his Fourth Symphony, a paean to biodiversity that he hopes will call attention to the crisis of the natural world and raise more money for the SoBe Institute. You can read a piece I did for the Knight Arts blog about it here:

If he gets the money for the recording, he’ll use the services of conductor Delta David Gier and the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, who have recorded two other Kievman symphonies. South Florida is a region that’s on the verge of getting to the fabled next level nationally as a place worth knowing for its vibrant arts scene, and organizations such as the SoBe Insitute are an important part of making that happen.

Here’s the link to Kievman’s Kickstarter project, with a video that explains some more about the project.

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Time was the end result of a composer’s efforts was a score and parts on paper.  And paper is surprisingly durable – they are still finding Bach manuscripts in Germany after 250+ years.  But 21st century composers use a variety of digital media to do their work: notation software, MP3 or .wav files, executable application files and maybe some spreadsheet and word processing files for the business side.

Apart from the variety of files to be stored there is the issue of media durability. We have all probably experienced hard drive failure. Turns out CDs and DVDs are not forever and may degrade after 20 years. Files kept in the cloud may be at risk if the server has some sort of catastrophic failure.  And another issue is platform longevity – some of the early music composed by computer 30 years ago can exist only as recordings; the hardware needed to realize it is obsolete and no longer available.  Software may be abandoned by the company that created it or your version may not be compatible with later operating systems.

So what is the best thing to do?  I know I don’t address all of these issues but I do keep my files in three places: on my PC hard drive, on an offline storage drive (updated from my hard drive twice per year) and in the cloud.  My notation software is on a CD so I can reload if my PC fails, and other software that I use is freeware and I keep back-up copies of the executables.

So what is the best practice?  What are some of the solutions for the long-term issues?  What do you do and what have you found that works best?

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The Guardian recently ran an article titled “Can You Make Any Kind of Living as an Artist?” and the first sentence stated: “With the exception of household names, most people in the creative arts need a day job to make ends meet.”  This is not exactly news to those of us in the musical arts – so the more practical question for composers might be: “How can I get more done in less time?”  Can a 21st century composer forced to work a day job hope to produce the output of, say, a Bach or Haydn?  The answer, surprisingly, may be ‘yes’.

Let’s look at are some historical examples of composing productivity that we can use as a benchmark.

During 1724 and 1725 JS Bach wrote one cantata per week for the Leipzig churches where he had recently been installed as Kantor. Each cantata was about 20 minutes of music and consisted of choral, instrumental and keyboard parts. Bach had to compose, notate, rehearse and perform this music each week, so his productivity, assuming a 40 hour week, was something like 2 hours spent composing for each minute of music performed.

GF Handel raised the bar on composer productivity in 1741 by completing the ‘Messiah’ in just 24 days. This famous oratorio runs some 136 minutes and has 259 pages in the original score and works out to a rate of composition of almost 40 minutes per week. If we assume he worked 8 hours per day, this calculates out to about 1.4 hours of composing per minute of music. This does not include rehearsing or copying out of parts – so Handel and Bach were probably about equal in terms of composing efficiency.

Josef Haydn produced some 340 hours of music over a 42 year career. If we assume he did this in standard 40 hour, 5-day weeks, we get an output of something like 9.7 minutes per week – requiring an average of a bit more than 4 hours of composing per minute of music. Notice that Haydn worked at a rate about half that of the most skilled Baroque composers – but he is still considered very prolific.

As an experiment in 1998 I took one week of my vacation and tried to write a Baroque church cantata. And to my astonishment I actually succeeded in producing 8 minutes of usable material. Of course my 8 minutes weren’t as good as Bach, but it was performed during a church service very much as Bach would have done. Throw in a couple more hours for choir rehearsal and my composing efficiency was about 5.25 hours of composing per minute of music. Not a lot worse than Haydn!

But here is the thing: when I was writing my 8 minute cantata I noticed that only about half the time was spent actually creating music. The rest was spent breaking out parts and checking them, transposing for various instruments, making copies and organizing the pages into a rational format, etc. In other words my composing efficiency was cut in half because of the requirements of performance.

21st century composers now have the capability of realizing and delivering their music electronically – there is no need for notation and performance – and there are computers to increase our productivity over 18th and 19th century practices. I have been composing electronic ambient music for about 2 years. I do this by a combination of notation and processing – this music is not written for performance. In the first half of 2012 I have produced some 5.5 hours – realized by PC and delivered to the Internet. I have a full time job but even so I am producing over 12 minutes per week. So my composing output is something like 25% greater than that of Haydn. Now I’m no Haydn – and although I like my music it’s possible that I’m actually making 12 minutes of crap per week. Even so, I will only get better at what I am writing and can do so knowing that I don’t have to be a full-time composer to achieve a historically high output.

Contrast my situation with the composer who writes for performance – his efficiency will be only 50% of what I can achieve, and the number of new pieces performed each year for even a busy, well-connected composer is likely to be in the single digits. So his progress is restrained by the slower pace of writing for performance and his art will take longer to develop. Performance is presently deemed the successful end result of the composing process – but the lack of performance opportunities and the efficiencies to be gained via electronic music would seem to be compelling for those of us who are increasingly composing part-time by necessity. Sooner or later those among us with real talent – and the inevitable day job – will be working as I am, reaping the benefits of improved composing efficiency through electronics.

The most dramatic effect of the Internet on the art of music, therefore, may be the breaking of the historical chain of composer, performer and listener.  Music will henceforth be composed primarily for listening – rather than for performing.

What do you think?

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The current economic crisis has uncovered what composers of new music already knew: there are deep and serious flaws in how our society compensates artists, especially musicians. The short of it is that free market capitalism has prevailed in the public mind so that music is now understood to be a commodity – it is worth precisely what someone will pay for it. And government subsidies – once a way to provide for continuity in the arts – are now under attack as a needless luxury given the present dire economic circumstances.

So, like pork bellies and gasoline, those in the musical arts must conform to the inflexible laws of supply and demand. Too many musicians? Well too bad because that means the supply exceeds the demand and therefore wages for players must necessarily drop – ask the folks in Louisville or Detroit how that turns out. Can’t cover your symphony orchestra expenses Philadelphia? Well then you’d better program something that will attract a bigger paying audience – this is not the time to experiment with something new. You say your digital music offered on-line produces an infinite supply of product with almost zero distribution costs? Then the capitalist system decrees that it isn’t worth anything.

It has gotten so the odds of a musician leaving the university and playing for a living wage are about the same as for football and basketball players. As a result, cultural life suffers and composers and players can expect to receive little for their efforts to create and present new works. And it all goes back to treating music like a commodity – you sell your art for what the market is willing to pay and hope that it will be enough. For all but a select few, however, it is not enough. So we do other things – teach, work an unrelated day job or simply suffer.

So what is the answer? We must decouple our art from the capitalist markets. No one should have to try to live on what the world is willing to pay for his art. How to do this? I think the Occupy Movement is on the right track but the real answer is to recover the wealth that has been flowing out of the working and middle classes and into the 1%. The productivity of the American worker has increased 400% since 1950, but this has not resulted in higher (real) wages nor shorter hours for you and me. Rather that wealth has been captured by the top1%, and here is how they did it:

If productivity increases by 50%, for example, because of computer automation and the Internet, then instead of paying two workers the same wages for half the hours worked, the capitalist fires one worker and makes the other work the same 40 hours at the same pay – and management pockets the difference. That is the cause of the unprecedented concentration of wealth in the US today and the stubborn unemployment problem. Change the way the benefits of productivity are distributed to society – and you change everything.

What could we do as a society if all it took to make a living was 20 hours of work a week? There would be an explosion of creativity and interest in the arts. Those of us already so inclined would have more time to devote to our pursuits. Those trapped as wage slaves in a full-time job could escape to recover their humanity – think of how this would address addiction and depression issues. It isn’t a matter of redistributing income – it is a matter of giving all of society a fair share of the increases in their own productivity and efficiency.

Or we could let the 1% continue to take all the fruits of our labors and beg them for some crumbs to fund our art. We’ll name a concert hall after them or dedicate a concerto while continuing our slide backwards to the status of a kitchen maid, hired hand and lackey.

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Well, I am writing this on my employer’s computer during work hours. And I don’t even feel guilty about it – the same increases in productivity via computers and the Internet that now allow me to do the work of three people for my employer (at the same pay, of course) also lets me do some extra-curricular activities – all with time to spare.

I find I can get a lot of networking done on Facebook, G+ and the various new music blogs during work hours. Reading articles, posting comments and maybe creating some album artwork – all easy to do between phone calls, quoting prices, responding to emails or rewriting technical specs for our products where I work. I can also print out scores, break out the parts and get them ready for copying. So one way to leave more time for composing at home is to get all the other stuff done at work. Of course I have my cubicle set up so I can quickly put my emergency spreadsheet on the screen as soon as anyone approaches, but that is actually pretty rare.

At home I try to reserve the same time slot each week for composing and for me this is Saturday morning. I’ve been able to sleep in so I am refreshed, the house is quiet and I know I can concentrate on getting all the notes in the right places. I work strictly by PC – so I don’t need to bang around on a piano or fool with staff paper – it all goes straight into the notation program. When I’m finished I can print out a .pdf score and upload to my website in just a few minutes.

I do a bit of processing to the resulting midi file – sequencing, normalizing, maybe stretching or adding some reverb, echoes or equalization. But the final mp3 or .wav file can be uploaded directly, again in a matter of minutes. Everything is on my laptop so I can do this pretty much anywhere – although I prefer the familiar surroundings of home. But the whole process is a beneficiary of the efficiency that the PC (and Mac) has brought to music creation over the last several years.

All of this has encouraged me to believe that a full-time day job need not prevent the composer from a reasonably productive musical output. Many of us must make a living outside of music – and even if you are teaching the academic life is pretty crowded with job-related responsibilities. It might even be argued that a full-time composer will spend much of his time on non-composing tasks anyway – networking, rehearsals, traveling, overseeing the distribution of scores, etc.

So what makes you productive? Do you have a full-time day job? How would your composing habits change if you could work at it full time? If you now work exclusively at writing music, what is the best thing about full-time composing?

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