Author: Chris Sivak

The Secret Lives Of Composers Who Work In The Trades

My alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and I vault out of bed like a meatloaf rebounding off a linoleum floor. There’s an awkward shuffle in the dark as I locate pants and shimmy to the kitchen where I process my reward for not oversleeping: the first coffee of the day. This is a great time of day to be awake and the coffee discretely severs my tether to sleep before I hit the road. At this time of day, the world is silent and my thoughts would be able to jam wildly in my head if I was having any. I arrive at my destination—an industrial park not far from town. There’s another sip of coffee before I suit up: steel-toe boots, jeans that are never clean, sturdy work gloves, and a tool belt. I’m a concert music composer who has a secret life working in the trades.

Sivack in the trades

About five or six years ago, I made a big change. I had been doing my composer work for approximately a decade at that point and working various retail and kitchen jobs to support my art. From a writing standpoint, things were going very well. My craftsmanship had reached a point where I felt like I was no longer writing student works, professional ensembles would approach me to write for them, and I was bringing in money for the work I was putting in. My career trajectory was looking up.

But then the math set in.

I was being commissioned to write three or four pieces a year. At the rate I was being paid, I could hypothetically divorce my side gig by writing eight to ten more pieces annually. The idea of even approaching doing that much writing was, frankly, unappetizing and completely unrealistic. I was already living the lifestyle of a borderline hermit. Spending more time at my writing desk by forgoing luxuries like sleep, daylight, and grocery shopping didn’t exactly fill me with glee. Also, I was quite sure that if I tripled my output, I would produce exponentially less work I was proud of. The scales would be tipping towards quantity at the expense of quality if I pushed much harder.

If I was unable or unwilling to increase my composition output, I was going to be working my side gig for the next thirty years. Did I want to work in my retail-kitchen churn for that long?

At that point, the record needle swung wildly across the deck: if I was unable or unwilling to increase my composition output, I was going to be working my side gig for the next thirty years. Did I want to work in my retail-kitchen churn for that long? Dread and foreboding crept up my spine. I experienced some serious staring-into-the-abyss moments before I decided what criteria my side gig had to meet: it had to be something that didn’t make me miserable, it had to be something that paid above minimum wage, and it had to be something that could reliably be around as I aged. I began to explore options.

Film work is a great gig for a composer. For one, it can pay quite well. For two, it has exponentially more glitz and glamor than the pencil pushing in concert music circles. For three, because people watch movies in droves there’s the regular possibility someone might hear your music and register a thought about it. But you have to hustle to get film gigs. Big time. It’s not like you just wake up one morning and decide to turn on a faucet that magically sprays you with succulent composer dollars. Anybody who makes their living as a film composer got there by busting their ass. The best suggestion the experienced film composer will give you is if you want to get into film music you should get a reliable job so that you can support yourself while you build yourself up. For me, it just didn’t make sense to have a job I didn’t want, to support a creative pursuit that wasn’t my first choice, in order to financially support myself in the pursuit of my first choice. I could easily remove the film work middle-man and continue in kitchens and retail and be equally miserable.

Academia is a rich pursuit for many of us. However, I was already sick of high academia after my undergrad and, at that point in time, the relationship between the teacher’s union and my local government could be best described as a fistful of pins pounding sand. There were also other problems: I had spoken with a number of teachers who were at the start of their own careers and they were teaching sporadically, with long commutes, and having to do side gigs in order to maintain an income. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Also, if I’m being honest, I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert and I’m just not so sure I would be a good fit for the profession.

So instead of making sales in retail, cooking omelets in kitchens, teaching algebra in classrooms, or writing for my second choice, I picked up a hammer and swung for the bleachers. I was going to work in the trades. When I explain my side gig to people, I often tell them I’m an Internet plumber—my trades colleagues call me a splicer and preface it with the word “filthy.” There are hundreds of thousands of kilometers of cable that snake all over the world humming with data. They hang in the air from telephone poles, they run in underground conduit between manholes, and they even run along the bottom of the ocean. Making sure they are connected properly, figuring out why they might not be connected properly, and splicing them together is my new side gig. My typical day now involves climbing telephone poles with climbing gaffs, ladders, or in a bucket truck; splicing together fiber optic, twisted pair, and coaxial cable; troubleshooting network problems; and getting absolutely covered in grime. It’s dirty work and I love it.

Sivack in the trades

I’ve been at it for three or four years now, and it often feels like I’m leading a double life—something I’m still learning to navigate. There are relatively few of my new colleagues who are interested in classical music and I’m still new enough that I feel like I need to establish myself as someone who belongs where I am, perhaps unjustifiably so. So I don’t mention my composing to my colleagues much during the morning shuffling of trucks.

I don’t mention my composing to my colleagues much during the morning shuffling of trucks.

But I think the reason I keep my art close to my chest is because I’ve encountered a perception in the trades that the arts are a dalliance; art can’t possibly be real work and those who do it don’t understand what real work is. When I was first hired, I was driving to a job site with one of my bosses and he casually mentioned that his son was a musician. Before I could chime in with my shared experience, he rushed to explain that his son wasn’t lazy or lacking in ambition; the young man had a teaching and recording studio and was doing quite well for himself. The immediate defensiveness was striking and I kept quiet. I was right at the beginning of my entrance to the trades and there was a pressure on me to be perceived as a competent and good worker. I didn’t want to jeopardize that by tapping into people’s prejudices.

On the flip side, you can encounter those in the arts who reject you at the molecular level because you don’t fit their perception of being serious about your arts practice. To them, a serious musician derives their income primarily from performing and teaching. There is some flexibility in accepting entry-level restaurant work but if you exceed those narrow parameters then, to them, you must not be serious about your art. Your fellow artists will gossip about your side gig as if you were perpetuating adultery by opting to swing a hammer to pay the bills. Even if there were any rules, written or unwritten, that legislate how a person is to balance art in their lives, it shouldn’t matter if you’re a barista or a plumber. The linchpin is whether or not you continue to make art happen. If your side gig allows you to continue doing it then your dedication to your arts practice is reinforced, not weakened, by whatever you choose to do to keep yourself afloat.

So I tend to maintain a separation between my two lives. It’s not that I don’t talk about it with anyone ever, but I definitely avoid it as a leading topic of conversation. However, I think there is a balance that I have yet to achieve. I recently left my old company to work somewhere new, and on my last day I mentioned to my crew that among the things I was looking forward to in my new life was finally being able to get a piano again. I had been living in a shared space and this was changing after my move. This piqued the ear of an older colleague who was driving me to a site and, once we got to talking, I found out that he was also a pianist. In fact, he had been a touring musician in the ’70s and had a studio back home in Alberta. On this singular drive, we discovered we shared a love of jazz and classical music. We were both flabbergasted. Like me, he had his own crisis when he was a young man and decided to get into the trades to keep his music alive. I had been working with the man for almost two years at that point and we had never clued in to each other’s secret identities. I was hit with regret—playing my cards so close to my chest caused me to miss an opportunity to connect with a colleague. I’ve since relaxed my subterfuge. After all, part of what makes music appeal to me is the chance to connect with other humans over our mutual appreciation of it.

Sivack in the trades

I still have time to write. The same hours I had set aside when I was working my old side gig are as available now as they were before. I also find the creative juices get flowing during moments of solitude at work. I once experienced a wonderful creative rush while driving a truck through a mountain pass and had to immediately pull over and jot some sketches down. Many people say that the hours in the trades are long, and they sometimes are. But one of the benefits is that when I hang up my hard hat, I hang up the stress of my job with it. My work doesn’t follow me home. Instead, I go to choir practice, I open up a copy of The Well Tempered Clavier, I get out a pencil and some manuscript paper and dash some squiggles that will hopefully one day become something memorable.

Initially, I might have been resistant to heading into the trades because I was worried I would be giving up on music and my composition career would end with a resounding thud of failure. I was wrong. The only way you fail at art is if you stop doing it. There’s no reason a composer can’t be a plumber or an electrician instead of a teacher. All you have to do is keep writing.

So You Want To Host A Composition Competition

Picture it: you are at the precipice of your arts organization and hosting a competition for composers. Before you pat yourself on the back for not going with a “feats of strength” model, let’s consider this journey you’re embarking on with a generous helping of a composer’s perspective.

It’s inevitable that a composer will at some point consider entering their music in a competition. For those who have, once you start preparing submissions you begin to develop a familiarity with some of the common guidelines. Having the duration of the work as well as its year of composition in the vicinity of the title page is more-or-less accepted as common practice, for example, but competitions often specifically ask for this information.

Composers also develop a familiarity with guidelines that can seem ambiguous in their utility. This article gets into some specifics below, but overall it makes me wonder: For those who host them, what are you actually trying to accomplish with this competition? Are you trying to foster young talent by creating an opportunity for it? Are you trying to encourage people to write for a particularly esoteric ensemble? Are you after the fire and brimstone of spectacle where artists beat each other into bloody pulps using their haphazardly bound manuscripts? In the end, we all want to serve the act of making music, but I sometimes wonder if an organization might not be aware of how their competition’s guidelines might inhibit what they’re setting out to do.

Age Limits

Many competitions have an age limit that can range from 18 to 30 years young. Unless the competition is billed as a “Young Composers Competition,” it strains credulity to see how this requirement is pertinent. Composition as a career isn’t arrived at in the same way that performance is. We often start much later in life. It’s a unique parental combo that pushes their pre-schooler into composition lessons, dreaming of the day when their protégé can barely scrape together an income from sitting in a dark room, scribbling incomprehensibly on staff paper. Many of us come to it by chance. Sometimes it’s our discovery of improvisation, the encouragement of a teacher, or even just simple curiosity. These humble beginnings have the potential to start a cycle that can last a lifetime. A model doesn’t really exist for the active nurturing of composers from early childhood in the same way we nurture instrumentalists. As such, composers can declare themselves at any stage of life and an age limit is often unnecessary and arbitrary.

On The Acceptance of Previously Performed Works

It’s understandable that part of the draw of a competition, in terms of getting butts into seats, is the spectacle of it. Spectacle, so the thinking goes, can be fostered by mirroring the performance aspect of sport. That’s not to say that composers are judged by how far they can heave their manuscript down the pitch, but there’s a definite emphasis on a performance within the frame of the present competition. For instance, we haven’t been handing gold medals to long jumper Bob Beaman for forty years just because he still holds the record for the longest jump (8.9 meters, for those measuring). We evaluate the athletes who show up and base our evaluation on what they do that day. The value is placed on performing in the present competition. Transmogrifying this idea over to the art world, the idea is that if a piece has already been performed, then its moment has more or less passed. If the previously performed work were allowed into the competition, it would be the equivalent of one of Bob Beaman’s mythical forty years of gold medals.

However, this reading breaks a little under thoughtful pressure. A composition competition isn’t really about evaluating the present performance, as there is none. The act of composing can be divorced completely from performing to the point where it’s about the deliverable—the composition itself. What disallowing previously performed works really amounts to is a back-of-the-napkin way of making sure that all the works submitted are new and the spectacle is just a bonus to help promote the event. A guideline requiring compositions needing to be recently composed will create a problem, as the history of each submission will need to be checked; it would be a bit of an upset if the winning piece was revealed to violate guidelines.

If your ensemble’s instrumentation is even slightly esoteric, you might also want to consider how disqualifying previously performed works is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. If your goal is simply to get great new music, then what if someone out there has an excellent piece for you that you disqualify because it was performed during the second year of their undergrad studies? You could be missing out on something stupendous and not even realize it.

Entry Fees

This might be my most foolish moment, coming out in favor of entry fees, as I am forever going to be the one paying them. But if I’m totally honest and sigh resignedly, then I have to acknowledge they are often a necessity. It does take time to evaluate scores. Time is money. If you’re hosting a competition you’ll see a higher volume of scores than you’re used to. This means more of either your own or your jury’s time to evaluate submissions and that time is worth something. It also has the added benefit of filtering out some of the fence sitters who are sending in a work just because it’s a competition and not because they think they have a great piece for you.

And to be clear, many other composers and New Music USA come down against entry fees but acknowledge it’s a complex topic.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment (or even more dastardly in this case: composer’s advocate), part of the reason that so many of us grumble about entry fees is because rather than see the product in action, we see what has the vague outlines of a bait-and-switch. In other words, you provide us with a wonderful product: spending the time to get to know our music. This is something we all cherish. But in the vast majority of cases, all we see from our end is a form letter thanking us for our interest in your competition, and it’s rare that the name of our piece is even mentioned. To contrast, I once participated in a competition that circulated a form to its judges—identified on the form only by number to preserve anonymity—which was filled out with comments on each piece. These forms were returned to the entrants and made our participation a richer experience.

Are You Really Sure You Want It To Be A Composition Competition?

Honing in on a purpose for your competition rather than simply hosting a bloodbath and handing out towels will result in an event that makes far better use of everybody’s artistic energy.

Before you stoke the fierce rivalries between stacks of paper, you might consider other options. A commissioning competition is ideal for a group that has the funds and desire to commission a new work but lacks the personal contact with a composer upon whom to bestow the terms of the commission. Instead of asking composers to write a new piece for your ensemble, ask them to send in a CV, scores and recordings of a handful of representative works, and a project proposal for what they would like to write. The organization can then decide, based on a composer’s past work and their proposal, what would be the best fit.

Also, don’t discount the utility and practicality of an open call for scores. If your desire is to see as much new music for your ensemble as possible, a press release calling for creative individuals to send in their best work will yield a mountain of PDFs and bound volumes for you to wade through.

It’s easy to polarize the issue of competitive art making, and the fuzziness of art metrics are a big reason for this. That are certain aspects of craftsmanship that come in to play, but at some point—and likely sooner than you think—judges are going to be picking pieces because they like them and their reasoning will be nebulous. That isn’t to say they won’t be able to justify their reasoning, but that reasoning is going to have more to do with their personality and preferences than anything you can measure.

There’s also a misplaced lament for the loss of the commissioning model of supporting artists whenever competition is brought up. But both have always existed side-by-side. (See Beethoven rising to prominence in competitive piano duels, for instance.) However, there is some ethical grey area around being asked to write specifically for a competition. “You didn’t place but at least now you have a great piece for your catalogue!” doesn’t really address the problem of asking artists to work for free. Writing a great piece takes a great amount of work and composers already have lots of great pieces in their catalogues. Their time is often best spent promoting those and writing new ones that are destined to be performed.

Honing in on a purpose for your competition with these considerations in mind rather than simply hosting a bloodbath and handing out towels will result in an event that makes far better use of everybody’s artistic energy. Composers won’t feel like they’re participating in some kind of cattle call, your performers will be more likely to be playing something fabulous, and your audience will be more likely to be excited by something that expands their horizons. Who knows how many great pieces are out there, desperately craving your attention, that could be shut down for rulebook reasons as mediocre as they are miscellaneous? If your primary goal is great music, then make some space in your mail room and brew a pot of coffee. Because it’s out there—and it is legion.

Chris Sivak

Chris Sivak is a multi–instrumentalist and composer residing in Vancouver, BC. His output covers a wide variety of ground ranging from the soberly serious to the seriously absurd; all lush and lasciviousness, hunting for the perfect musical moment, to manic chamber opera featuring casts of characters out to tickle your funny bone. Chris studied music at UBC with Stephen Chatman and Dorothy Chang. He subsequently moved on to become the composer in residence with the Laudate Singers Of North Vancouver from 2014 to 2016 and is an associate composer with the Canadian Music Centre.