Posts Tagged “composing”

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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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?

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