Going it Alone
Given where we are today, what options actually are there for a composer with a more independent, unaffiliated profile?
In my essay last week, the first in a four-part series, I discussed what it means to be a “mid-career” composer in today’s musical landscape. This week I am going to explore the world of “unaffiliated” composers. By unaffiliated, I mean composers who have no particular ties or responsibilities to academia or other cultural institutions that strongly shape musical careers. New music composers have always been a tiny minority within the larger society, but merely a generation ago, the unaffiliated or the “freelance” composer was a more common phenomenon in new music. With a more reasonable cost of living in culturally active cities such as New York City or San Francisco, composers could more easily build their lives around the pursuit of their craft, while earning a modest living doing a part-time side job. Just ask Philip Glass who, reflecting back on his early career in the late ’60s and early ’70s during a 2012 Village Voice interview, said, “You could work three days a week loading a truck or driving a cab, and you’d have enough money to live off of, but that’s not true anymore.” A look at musical life in the cities of today reveals a considerably different picture. It’s not only the rising cost of living that’s eroding our musical communities, but also the continually diminishing financial support of the arts and the increasing commercialization of all facets of cultural practice.
Much of the now legendary American new music of the previous era was largely the work of unaffiliated freelancers. Going back even further, one of our culture’s greatest new music traditions is that of the so-called “American Maverick”—those composers whose non-conformist temperaments lead them to shun mainstream and academic pursuits in favor of rugged individualism and often self-imposed exile. Think Conlon Nancarrow hiding away in Mexico City, or Harry Partch living the life of the wandering hobo, or Lou Harrison camped out in the coastal forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. As Harrison himself observed in a 1945 essay titled “Ruggles, Ives, Varèse,” “American music, like so much other American art, is almost completely the product of amateurs. Its finest thinking and finest writing practitioners have for a long time been amateurs. And it is no disgrace to a country that its expression should arise out of a need of the private citizen.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, the fact remains that new music and the arts overall have become increasingly professionalized in America, to the point where it has become nearly unthinkable that a young composer might forego graduate studies and an eventual Ph.D. and simply go it alone. This is not to disparage academic music or film and theater composers. The problem is that professionalization is becoming the only game in town.
Given where we are today, what options actually are there for a composer with a more independent, unaffiliated profile? Here in New York City, though it is increasingly hard to locate, we do still have some vestiges of an independent new music syndicate. Small arts organizations that host new music still exist, but with ever-diminishing budgets and programming. Beyond that, an informal ecosystem of venues and spaces nurture some vibrant musical activity, though again, without meaningful resources. Nonetheless, a culture persists. But it’s a decidedly different culture than the one of previous generations. Again, here is Philip Glass:
It was very common to find a loft in the East Village . . . empty synagogues and that type of thing…You could find a loft for $150, $200 a month. Now, that’s impossible.
It was this type of environment—one with ample space that was relatively inexpensive to either own, lease, or simply book time in—that allowed Glass and others to form entire ensembles, with an extensive original repertoire, and to rehearse, weekly! Today this is mostly impossible, and thus an entire musical model—a model which incidentally, went on to largely define the new music landscape of the past fifty years—has essentially become extinct. Today’s underground landscape favors simple setups, usually solo, and lots of improvisation. Who has time and space to practice and develop actual compositions?
I’m not advocating here for a broad return to minimalist chamber ensembles in downtown lofts, but some flexibility in our capitalist, consumerist, straitjacketed landscape would surely lead to more musical experimentation and innovation, and that would be good for our musical culture.
And yet we persist. Independent composers still form collectives, write new works, and organize concerts. Others delve more deeply into computers and electronic music to satisfy their artistic impulses, avoiding the more difficult challenge of finding a way to get an ensemble work or a string quartet actually performed. Still others give up composing entirely, in favor of the aforementioned freeform underground improv model. For my part, I’ve been recently involved in some of each, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Having reached mid-career, as I wrote in my essay last week, and feeling that many of my long-term compositional projects have run their course, I am desperately seeking a new and productive working model that would allow me to continue to grow as a composer and to realize some of the many latent ideas I carry within me. I’m determined to find it, as the “unaffiliated” composer that I continue to be, but I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t feeling dispirited.
Next week I will try to explain why, given all the difficulties, anyone would continue to pursue the path of composing a type of music that is so little heard and even less understood outside of a small circle of friends and colleagues. It’s a question we’ve certainly asked ourselves many times over, possibly even on a daily basis, but it can become an even more poignant question upon reaching mid-career.