Archive for August, 2007

In the beginning, I never thought of myself as a ‘C’ (composer) but rather as a ‘double M’ (music maker ) which was at the same time, more inclusive of non-traditional processes and sufficiently low-key. It’s not until Greg Sandow called me a composer in a Village Voice review in 1983 that I began to realize that maybe after all I was a composer, if he said so. Along with this approach, for many years, the idea of a having a real ‘C’ (career) did not seem a possibility. Even now, strangely enough, I feel compelled to shield my ‘Composing’ from my ‘Career’.

Let’s just for a moment suppose that over-focusing on one’s career creates a distortion of perspective, similar to what happens to pianists who play in lounges or dance classes too long and somehow lose their own musical pulse, or film music writers who are so used to making music that’s a backdrop to action that they lose the ability to create music for its own sake. I never had the opportunity to become a film composer (although I may have been happier doing just that), but such reverse opportunities (like the break-up of my rock band) are in retrospect the best things that happened to me, from a strictly creative standpoint, as I am now practiced at creating my own thread without leaning on images or people.

I identify the tensions between career and composing in terms of orientation and allocation. I don’t really like to have an ‘orientation’ such as a goal, even a Commission – C vs C again, unless it is unavoidable, like “an offer one cannot refuse”, and when I do, the challenge is to integrate the commission goal with my own composition goals at the time. But it’s all really difficult and fragile at a certain level. The commission can be a total creative disruption and sometimes an impossibility – luckily commissions are not difficult to avoid…

When writing music, one may think about certain performers, voices, instruments, certain moods and moments, some experiential transference. I may compose from the ambient sounds that I hear in my room or outside, from potential cyclic synchronicities with natural phenomena, from spiritual realms discovered while cleaning under the kitchen sink or in the essence of a cup of tea, from carefully laid out hierarchies and correspondences, or simply from direct playing, but essentially it is the weaving of a new fabric of sounds that gets hold of me and I’ll be immersed in it for whatever time it takes to complete the work – in some cases, several years. The first thread is at once the easiest and the most difficult, torn out of spontaneity, to be later assessed and possibly discarded, trimmed or left unchanged.

In addition, there is an obvious career-versus-composing opposition in terms of time allocation. Career calls for social interaction, composing calls for introspection and to some extent, isolation. As much as I love to spend time with people (and love pleasing them)I find my mind so filled with people-related thoughts – and their problems – that distract me from my composing purpose. My approach to this dilemma is to alternate the periods of creation of new work and periods of presentation of the work. During the creative periods, I may do very little ‘business’ and see very few people (my friends know this) even though it holds me back later on (where have all the gigs gone while I was busy composing?…) but I still haven’t found any other way to function.

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I went to see the new delightful film about Molière, where the character of interest is the ‘bourgeois gentleman’, Monsieur Jourdain, who believes that beyond financial success, becoming a dilettante in the arts (and some sports) will ensure his rise in status from tradesman to aristocrat. Some may see Jourdain as an insufferable nouveau-riche who pretends to own a culture which he does not understand, but what I see as important is the emphasis he places on the various forms of art, and not just because they are associated with ‘class’ privileges, but because he truly delights in music, painting and dance. At the same time, perusing the book by Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), I see a connection: the rise of his newly identified class of ‘creators’ echoes the rise of the bourgeoisie or ‘third estate’ (the other two being the clergy and aristocracy) reflected in the late 17th century theater of Molière, and leading to the French revolution in 1789.

I found Florida’s book keenly observant and rather uplifting. If we are to subscribe to the concept of a creative class, the model of the ‘starving artist’ or ‘good-for-nothing bohemian’, subject to contempt from the more prosperous segments of the population may not live too much longer; the idea that creators must either be enslaved to patrons or voluntarily cast themselves out of society may soon be short-lived as well. Simultaneously, radical woes about the cooptation of creative ideas into the main stream may already be outdated as the times have once again changed. As the upper classes embrace and value bohemian styles (the phenomenon is described by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise, bobo meaning the unexpected but widespread 21st century bourgeois-bohemian combo), the bohemians are appreciated for their esthetics, creativity and freedom. They are vibrant, contributing members of a new class of people at the forefront of cultural evolution.

Florida writes: “The creative class derives its identity from its members’ roles as purveyors of creativity (…) Creativity has come to be the most highly prized ‘commodity’ in our economy – and yet it is not a commodity. Creativity comes from people. (…) Some 38 million Americans, 30% of all employed people, belong to this new class. I define the core of the creative class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content.”

The concept of creative class provides an answer to some of the identity issues that we might face as non-main-stream composers. If we multitask between composing, teaching and blogging – because it isn’t possible to devote ourselves to either of those activities exclusively, we can embrace our multi-functionality as active members of the new creative class, and be comforted by the fact that our contribution to society is all the more valuable because we integrate these various activities. The creator who holds a job and also contributes public creative content is a social powerhouse. It’s about time!

I remember being embarrassed at a party where I made the mistake of introducing myself as a composer and was immediately the target of questions like “how many CDs do you sell?”… Whereas no one would think of asking me the amount of my annual before-tax income upon being introduced, being a composer or a musician places us in some kind of public property domain where people believe they are entitled to such questions. Now I have a ready answer: it’s not about how much you sell, it’s how much you create, and how wide your creative range is – as more and more, creativity is considered one of the most important drivers of the new economy. I found more information on this subject of the actual economic value of the arts in a lengthy, serious report at: http://artsusa.org.

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