It seems that our Western civilization entails a conditioning to pursue success versus happiness. From early days of schooling to the pursuit of careers, to psychotherapy even, people are constantly brainwashed with the power of positive thinking and the idea of success as presented through the mass media. What is success in a happy pill society? And what does it mean for a composer? Actually, it is not as obvious as it may seem.

Are a Pulitzer Prize and a teaching job success for a composer? Many Pulitzer winners are actually not very well known at all. And even the household names, do they actually make a living strictly from composing? Don’t they most often have to rely on teaching jobs to get by? Is success defined in ‘professional terms’, i.e. earning a living as a composer, which then would mostly apply to those who in commercial music. Is success in selling yourself? In marketing? The capitalist system prompts us to equate success with money and fame. However, from an artistic and creative standpoint, a lot of the music produced strictly for money is worthless from an esthetic and spiritual point of view.

Some people are famous but not rich. There are levels of fame. One can be famous in a small circle, semi-famous, relatively famous, just for 15 minutes. There are so many of us. We’re a democracy, not an aristocracy. What is it that drives our society to constantly look for kings and queens?

I would like to try and redefine the elements that make a composer successful, not according to capitalist standards, but according to a set of alternative values: communication, quality and continuity. The first element is communication: It is important that the music is heard, and we can take full advantage of the accessibility of recording and what I call the ‘free distribution system’, which does not make money but makes it possible to be heard. The second element is the intrinsic quality of the piece. Quantity is not quality. Is the piece unique? Does it bring a new approach? Is it, if not totally new, pretty and enjoyable? Or so difficult it makes the listener feel really smart? Does it linger? Does it make people talk? The third element is continuity. Is the composer able to continue to create new work regardless of commissions? That is being truly successful.

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