We in the arts  like to live out loud in 2008, talking about almost everything (in detail)   – except  $$.

Since for most of us an artist’s life doesn’t actually pay well, we become our own patrons and subsidize our heart’s work with a day job of some sort.  For many composers, the day job is teaching. 

For that reason I was much struck by the poignancy of David Gessner’s comments in Sunday’s  NY Times , adapted here  for composers:

      Even if we grant that you can be as original within the university as up in your garret, we must concede the possibility that something is lost by living a divided life.   Intensity perhaps.   The ability to focus hard and long on big, ambitious projects.
      A great [creator] , after all, must travel daily to a mental subcontinent, must rip into the work, experiencing the exertion of it, the anxiety of it and, once in a blue moon, the glory of it. It’s fine for  [composers]  to talk in self-help jargon about how their lives require “balance” and “shifting gears” between teaching and [composing], but below that civil language lurks the uncomfortable fact that the creation of [music]  requires a degree of monomania, and that it is, at least in part, an irrational enterprise.  It’s hard to throw your whole self into something when that self has another job.

 – David Gessner, NY Times Magazine (Sunday Sept. 21, 2008). 
           “Those Who Write, Teach”

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Composers’ natural allies are performers, listeners.
And Studio Teachers.

Kids study their instrument around the world in formalized settings, then finish up with a degree or two from Conservatory or University.   Their studio teacher, with whom they study one-on-one, personifies  their instrument, and serves as  a siphon for the selection of  pieces the student will spend many practice-hours on.

Though it’s true that great swatches of ‘educational music’ are weak, forgettable, composing repertoire works for  developing musicians  can be  a strategic  ( if occasional)  goal  for alert composers.   Having a piece selected for an organization’s  state-wide, national or international  repertoire list  means a  tangible boost for that work.  And  a useful spotlight for the composer.    

It also means that someone musically sophisticated is paying attention not just to the virtuoso, but to the budding  performer.

My article “Embracing New Music” In the current issue of American Music Teacher  magazine invites the teacher-performer to take a fresh, positive  look at recent works  they and their students will enjoy spending time with.  (The music excerpts are all by composers other than myself.)  

It recapitulates the ebb and flow of interest in newer music over the past century,  and  also probes the reasons  why studio teachers might be reluctant  to include very-new works for study as repertoire — meaning something the student will spend many hours on,  not just sight-read.   All of this is presented positively,  with the sense of excitement at the potential of a major discovery.

Included is a sidebar on the issue of how a composer gets “branded”.

Read it, then  comment.  

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Composers’ natural allies are performers, listeners.
And Studio Teachers.

Kids study their instrument around the world in formalized settings, then finish up with a degree or two from Conservatory or University.   Their studio teacher, with whom they study one-on-one, personifies  their instrument, and serves as  a siphon for the selection of  pieces the student will spend many practice-hours on.

Though it’s true that great swatches of ‘educational music’ are weak, forgettable, composing repertoire works for  developing musicians  can be  a strategic  ( if occasional)  goal  for alert composers.   Having a piece selected for an organization’s  state-wide, national or international  repertoire list  means a  tangible boost for that work.  And  a useful spotlight for the composer.    

It also means that someone musically sophisticated is paying attention not just to the virtuoso, but to the budding  performer.

My article “Embracing New Music” In the current issue of American Music Teacher  magazine invites the teacher-performer to take a fresh, positive  look at recent works  they and their students will enjoy spending time with.  (The music excerpts are all by composers other than myself.)  

It recapitulates the ebb and flow of interest in newer music over the past century,  and  also probes the reasons  why studio teachers might be reluctant  to include very-new works for study as repertoire — meaning something the student will spend many hours on,  not just sight-read.   All of this is presented positively,  with the sense of excitement at the potential of a major discovery.

Included is a sidebar on the issue of how a composer gets “branded”.

Read it, then  comment.  

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August 27, 2008
We’ll get to $$ matters in a future post.  Today:  Pitfalls of paying too much attention to what you think listeners want to hear.
In today’s NY Times  David Brooks writes about the ‘airlessness’  of designing  anything  — in his case, a presidential campaign – by adhering too closely  to  focus  group feedback.  Brooks warns Obama to  “ avoid the focus group over-managing that killed the passion out of men [like] Gore and Kerry.”
~ Do you tailor your work according to audience expectation?  To what extent?
 

In the arts we see this :  Two Russians  made an ironic  career of designing their pictures  according to majority wishes expressed by municipal focus groups, coming together to state what they’d  like to see in a picture:  Abraham Lincoln/George Washington;  a dog;  some water;  trees; etc.     The point wasn’t the pictures;  they were lame.  The point was the emptiness of trying to be “all things to all people”.  
In music, over and over,   I see  composers looking to erase the personal  in their work.   Is it still too painful  to express directly, without any kind of  protective, 
dis-avowing filter?       Or are these composers looking specifically to give back to listeners what the new-fashioned habits of listening seem to crave?
Perhaps guided by attention spans  of slightly greater than a gnat’s length,  a  revised  habit of listening has developed over the last 10 years.  It partakes  of the music,  dipping into a piece, then  letting attention wander for a bit , then dipping into it at some later point, etc.; and it  tends  to connect better with single-affect material,  and  — even more –  with music which does not  narrate, journey,  progress or even develop .
 
Quite different from the previous,  former-age pattern of intense connection in listening — tracking the music’s progress closely, pretty much attentive throughout.  Do   today’s audiences expect  some additional  visual/performance  complement,  some stimulus to another sense along with hearing? 
They seem nervous without that  (manifesting  ADD on a monumental scale).
 
[ In 2003 a photographer, snapping me for a photo to go with a newspaper profile,  remarked that his four-year-old daughter  got very nervous whenever there was silence in their home.  She just expected a bed of noise,  or some  background music to be present as  underscore -- not to be  focussed on --  but just there; and she was  tremendously uneasy when that underscore was gone.  ]
 

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Randy Nordschow wrote the following at NMBx in late June :

“The work I’ve created up to this point spurs from a rather skeptical aesthetic standpoint, fostered by a barrage of things I just don’t buy into, such as: Music has the ability to communicate something “meant” by its creator; music is inherently emotional; yada, yada, yada—you know, stuff like that.

For me, music is a byproduct of artistic ideas haphazardly materialized in the form of vibrating air. It’s the artistic impetus behind the will to set those vibrations into motion, and not necessarily the sonic results of whatever is written on the page (or not), that matters more to me. There’s a certain amount of artistic cynicism that I harbor in order to tap into the concepts and materials that I use and the ways in which I use them when throwing together a new composition. Yes, it’s all so self-aware and postmodern, which I actually enjoy.

[Recently, though,] I was half-swayed to drop my attitude, so to speak, when it comes to my approach to composition. Where to go from here? Well, I was thinking of trying to write a piece without an ounce of irony. This, I’m sure, will be easier typed than done.”

Amen to his last sentence – it’s damn hard to make each note count.

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What musical features engage you?

Our era exalts the idea of mass approval, mass appeal.   Yet even though we recognize  Rodney King’s  genial entreaty “Can’t we all get along?” as nice in theory,  it  does disappear in practice.  

Making choices  is not  a betrayal. When we get right down to what items are on any single  listener’s playlist of  favorites  (‘can’t-do-withouts’),  there are all sorts of cut-outs operating to arrive at  those very selections.    It can only be  a positive that  composers and listeners possess a developed sense of self, even as they remain open – wisely – to explore within an infinity of options.  

My  personal  threshold is pretty high.  But I know that if a piece misses my expectations in  basic ways  I’ll turn aside – and fast.   

What do I expect from a piece?  

  • It requires active, not passive, listening.
  • It is  ‘fresh’ in some way — let the composer spin convention, even if just a  little bit.    
  • It is  genuine. 
  • The music conveys,  somehow, that the composer cares about the notes.
  • And, preferably, the music does not give up  its  entire essence on a single hearing.

What frames your listening?

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June 15, 2008
 
Back last night from the gigantic four-day  gathering in Denver of more than 3,000 folks  involved in today’s worlds   of music, theatre and dance.  
       The scope was  huge and the slant was definitely towards  identifying and speaking to the needs  of organizations, rather than those of  the individual artist.    That said, there was still  a fair amount of useful – essential – information  presented for the composer.
In a following post  I’ll get to my thoughts on the general  tenor and slant of NPAC.  Here I concentrate on summarizing some  the  preliminary findings of the national survey of composers just completed (a project jointly supported by  American Music Center, American Composers Forum and Meet The Composer, with essential input from ASCAP and BMI):
-         1,331 composers took the survey. 
         Participation was voluntary, via  the internet.  Anyone who believes s/he is a composer was eligible to answer – no distinction between ‘composer-in-embryo’ and ‘professional’. 
-         We’re mostly concentrated in urban areas.  (No surprise.)      But every state sent in at least one response. 
-         We’re a highly educated bunch.  85% of us have a college degree, and many continue beyond the baccalaureate. 
-         We’re close to 80%  white male.  Women comprise about 20% of respondents.
-         Income:  While c.  6% of respondents report annual income in six figures, the average  annual income  – from all sources -  is  $46,000.   Income specifically from composing activities  averagrd $7,000.
              (Composing activities include commissions,  grants and prizes,  royalties, honoraria  for leading masterclasses and concert Q&A, etc.)
 
Identifying  composers’ quality of life issues are also part of this survey – an important part.   Virtually the first item to appear on the power-point itemization  was that We Have No Union ( or guild)  -  to  watch over the profession,  establish an accepted fee schedule, assist in obtaining healthcare, etc.

I made the point from the floor that the organizations sponsoring this survey must  make it their mission to increase public awareness of our  existence as a profession.    (This means from every standpoint, including that of the IRS. )

The survey will continue, focusing on the four largest urban areas, according to the now-established composer concentrations. 
  
    

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Just in time for Halloween comes the eerie coincidence to read at one sitting Richard Taruskin’s (TNR) article  and Lawrence Dillon’s recent comments on the composer’s dilemma:  What  choice of outlook to adopt  for new-made music?  Either give the public what you believe it already wants, or write to push the high-art envelope in terms of innovation.   

Calculated? – yes.  Valid? – no.  [ Unless you're writing jingles. ]

If our work has any integrity, it already speaks inimitably as we speak. We don’t ordinarily have such decisions to make – there turns out to be one right way for the piece to manifest, and that’s the one right way it should come to life. 

Artists can (if they wish) make taste.  And there are, among us,   composers who see their place as being neither revolutionaries nor panderers,  but evolutionaries.   These are folks who do not put on new coats for each piece.    Their music knows and respects what came before; presses innovation forward when the moment calls for it;  and   cares not too much if – at first hearing – all of the piece is revealed to all the listeners.  

These composers know that art is a mirror and a lens – they presume a piece will have future performances which continue to reveal its contents, flavor, and character across time.    And they count on being able to reach listeners  repeatedly over years with various works, each of which is meant to have lasting resonance in some way.

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Gloss: It’s the Words, not the Music  
October 29, 2007
 
Reading Taruskin’s  “this is the way it went” summary of classical music’s 20th-century tribulations in The New Republic, I was uncomfortable: naturally – I’m in this business, and would like to know it’s a going concern.  But I did have to nod finally when I remembered the following:
I’m a big science-fiction fan.   Recently, I read a compendium of short fiction culled from the early golden-age (the pulps period), including some early Asimov, and then moved right on to  Richard Morgan’s Thirteen.  Music references couldn’t be more different:  Space explorers of the future in the early stories routinely reference purely instrumental music, citing composers quite up-to-date for their day — Bartok, Shostakovich,  even Stravinsky and Barber  — and sometimes talked about what the music did along the way, and how it made them feel.  Yet similar characters in newer sf  refer only to texted music, even in made-up titles — and the music is exclusively rock (not even jazz). 

This exposes a trend I’ve  noticed in the last decades:  We  now need  the presence – the “crutch” – of words, no matter the artform.  ( Think Jenny Holzer in visual art.)   

Whatever happened to the ability to revel simply in sounds, without engaging the sense side of our brains?

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Recently Frank Oteri wrote to describe a current  project of AMC and ACF to prepare an updated statiscal portrait of today’s composers –  where we live, what genres we address, where our financial support comes from, etc.

     I’m more interested in who we are artistically. Do we still write complex music?  Are our fabrics rich or thin?  How have today’s habits of listening looped back, affecting the content/style of what we produce?  How have general financial constraints — coupled with the beckoning finger of the educational market – affected decisions as to what we produce?

    So I ask again (as in my August post) Pete Townshend’s question:   Who are YOU?  

 

 

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