To most non-musicians, the activity of composing is largely misunderstood. I sometimes hesitate to even mention I am a composer to certain people. For most, the word composer spells Beethoven (well actually, not everyone even knows Beethoven, like a 7-year old I knew who thought Beethoven was a dog).

I never thought of myself as a composer until Greg Sandow said so in the Village Voice in 1983. I thought I was making music, and I still think that way. Composing is more like thinking music as opposed to making music, but there is a grey area somewhere.

If you say you are a composer, people expect you to be some household name, and if you’re not, they just don’t understand. Some people I am being introduced to, after three sentences, have the nerve to ask how many CDs I sell. No one would think of asking a total stranger, “and by the way, how much income did you declare on your last income tax?” They do that because they have no clue as to how to relate to a living composer. I have heard the phrase “It’s a passion!” many times even from a shrink, who would supposedly be able to understand the difference, but just couldn’t.

Isn’t a passion more like a hobby of sorts, a passion for golf, for butterflies, for the great outdoors – but music is not a passion… unless it is meant as something like The Passion of Christ, etymologically speaking – something painful that one is subjected to. But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they say passion. “You enjoy what you are doing”. A lot of people who work ordinary jobs then don’t really enjoy naively imagine that creators enjoy their work. Sometimes I try to explain that a lot of what is involved in composing is not all fun, like inputting notes in Finale for hours, attending to rehearsal arguments or productions from hell that make you think never to do this again. Composing can be painful, it can bring on anxiety, it can take over your life, it is, as they said in the sixties, a ‘trip’, but not a passion. Again, there is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Some people seek pleasure, but that fulfillment does not necessarily bring happiness or peace of mind along with it.

Along the lines of pleasure, this brings me to the question as to what is actually a good time. Do you enjoy having a good time? Without being a masochist, a so-called good time such as vacation or party is not always enjoyable. When I was growing up, going on vacation was a dread as I was separated from my piano for an extended period.

I asked the question to Barry Drogin. These are his comments.
“The semiotics of pleasure are definitely in the forefront of my consciousness lately. When I am “in the zone,” I experience satisfaction, some kind of thrill, during the act of composition, when I think I’ve found a solution to a musical problem, or if the beauty of the music itself pleases me. But it can be torture if I’m blocked, or if I think I’ve spent too much time on the wrong path. Not to give away the subject matter of my book by going too deeply, but consider also Kyle Gann’s “No more guilty pleasures” at
(although in that case he was writing about letting in other stylistic influences, what he calls totalism.)

I guess, to go to an extreme, the question might be: If a masochist only has a good time when he/she is having a bad time, is he/she actually having a good time or a bad time? Or what of people conditioned to feel guilty about having a good time? Do they enjoy the good time in the present tense but not in the past tense?

I think the point of my answer is that human experience is complex, and although an individual’s experience might be universalized, it doesn’t mean that another individual having the exact opposite experience is not common and cannot be universalized as well. Makes life for a contrarian like me so easy: anyone says A, I have no problem saying not A, both A and not A are typically true. Say not A, I have no problem going back and defending A. More from Barry Drogin at

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