Tag: compositional craft

Is Passion a Young Person’s Game?

A desk with scattered papers, compositions, and a computer
Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.—Bob Dylan, interview with Robert Love, AARP Magazine, February/March 2015


A French artist related that, in his 30s, a gallery owner told him that if he didn’t succeed as an artist by the age of 40 that he wouldn’t make it at all. He responded angrily, saying that age shouldn’t matter. “If the art is good, it’s good . . . [but] I see now that she was right,” he said matter-of-factly over a coffee in Marseille. Now in his 50s, in spite of a great deal of good work behind him, he spends his days playing boule in public lots with retired men while sipping pastis.

In the article “Blocked” by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker (June 14, 2004), Elizabeth Hardwick, a denizen of the writing world in the late 1950s, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” Acocella cites author John Updike who speculates on Herman Melville’s diminished output after turning 32: “. . . basically Melville exhausted his artistic capital—his seafaring years—in ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Moby-Dick.’ If, after those books, he wrote a couple of mediocre novels and then gave up the trade, it is no surprise.”

So, as one ages, how does one continue to “follow one’s bliss?” If it’s not passion in the 50+ age category (and, in my mind, that’s debatable) what is it that keeps us going in our work—especially if, like me and countless others, huge success hasn’t come knocking? Some days I feel like the only payoff I’ll ever have is the joy (not spoken ironically) of the daily habit of composing. Really, the important thing seems to be to work constantly and not worry about the end results; it’s best to invest your energy, enthusiasm, and—yes Bob—passion into your work.

Composer Kevin Volans, in his oft-quoted and discussed address “If You Need An Audience, We Don’t Need You,” [The Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland, June 15, 2016] states:

At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: . . . Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ‘emerging composers’ —most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. . . . I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong. . . . Emerging, who cares? Publicists.

Daniel Grant relates the story of a gallery owner who shared that “age tends to be an issue for certain kinds of collectors and, as such, is an issue for dealers.” [The Huffington Post: “Is There an Age Limit for ‘Emerging Artists’?” August 25, 2010, updated May 25, 2011], He noted that he sees “collectors’ body language shift when they learn that [an] artist is older. . . . Certainly, one might make the argument that lengthy experience deepens one’s technical and conceptual abilities.”

Our craft takes time to mature and develop. It’s true that some great art comes out of younger artists, but sometimes it needs time. One need go no further than Stravinsky to make a case in point. His early ballet music is some of my favorite—and he was finished with those works by the age of 32. Still, I’ve always admired the fact that, as he grew older, he continued to experiment and transform as a composer. A more extreme example of the brilliance of the young is W.A. Mozart, who never did grow old (at least speaking in terms relative to our era). But, for many of us growing older, a continued concentration on craft places Malcolm Gladwell’s following statement within the realm of possibility: “. . . sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table” [October 13, 2008, “Late Bloomers,” The New Yorker].

Looking at an older generation of living composers as I write this, Alvin Lucier in his late 80s is still composing excellent and beautiful music. I was privileged to play one of three banjos (with ebows) on the premiere of his composition Hannover, with the Callithumpian Consort of the New England Conservatory four years ago. This year I released the premiere recording of a piece for solo banjo that I commissioned from Christian Wolff who is also in his 80s (Innova 005). John Zorn, in his 60s, still exhibits an originality and energy that I’ve always admired; the same holds true for Kaija Saariaho. And Augusta Read Thomas, now in her 50s, is still composing great and colorful music that’s as enthusiastically received as the music that brought her wide acclaim decades prior. But what about composers who were sensations in their 20s but then somehow disappeared from public discussion, even as their work continued. Was it a case of getting too old to be of interest to a youth-focused culture? Was a shift in body language detected in concert programmers when a name and age were mentioned?

But there are also composers in the aging category who don’t hold the legendary status of some of the above-mentioned composers who are finally finding well-deserved success combined with a craft that continues to develop. My Tennessee composer friend Jonathan McNair, who just turned 60, has been writing excellent music for years. His music is infused with wonderful musicianship honed with passion and heart. Some of his music is expressive of a large social consciousness. For years, he kept writing and teaching and now a number of musicians have discovered his music and are programming it. “I think I wrote more music in the 11-month period from May 2018-April 2019 than ever before in my life,” he wrote me. And he is confident and happy with the direction that his new compositions are going,

As a composer in his 60s, am I supposed to give up because the zeitgeist seems to favor younger composers and artists? Chances are great that many of us composers over 50 aren’t through yet. “We’re living longer than ever before,” writes Amy Gutman [“Aging is not death. Stop conflating the two,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2015.]. “In the 20th century, Americans gained a staggering 30 years of life expectancy, thanks to advances in nutrition, public health and medicine. A century ago, just 3 percent of our population was 65 or older. Today, that number is 13 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 15 years. In other words, by 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 of us will be 65 or older.”

I’ve never been bored by the subject of music; it’s been an endless pipeline of exciting ideas and discoveries. I learn a lot from looking at works by Beethoven that I don’t know. I hear for the first time events in works by Debussy or Ravel that I may have heard a thousand times, but never before noticed. That’s an advantage for me in aging—I’m a more intelligent listener; my ears are better and keep improving. And I try to stay abreast of works by younger composers. I don’t want to send my own writing in their stylistic directions, but I am interested in the transformation of our art form. As an older composer, I am set on my own path, but I want to maintain an awareness, if not open-mindedness, of what is going on around me. At least I can point my students toward composers closer to their peer group to keep an eye on.

I don’t believe that I’ll run out of material or passion if I can at least maintain my health and attitude. I’m happy to have a catalog of works good and bad that developed over several decades. For the most part I believe that I’ve gotten better as one should with practice. The daily habit is what sustains me psychologically—anything beyond that in terms of performances or royalties may just be icing on the cake.

The musician/polymath Nicholas Slonimsky interviewed by NPR on the occasion of his 90th birthday was asked what he intended to do next. He listed numerous activities including composing and writing an autobiography, eventually titled Perfect Pitch, and published in 1988 when he was 94. He, in fact, lived to be 101. Elliott Carter kept writing music up until the year he died at the age of 103.

Is passion really a young person’s game? I find myself drawn to certain quotidian habits born of a passion fostered in my 20s: composing (esp. when I don’t feel like it), practicing, and teaching. I think back to images of the young Bob Dylan in the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back. While on tour, during the day, Dylan and his entourage are killing time in a hotel room; it’s an energetic scene: Joan Baez plays and sings in the corner, the manager Albert Grossman simply sits or fields calls, and Dylan is slamming out some sort of (I imagine) stream of conscious narrative on his typewriter. At this time, he was indefatigable and passionate with his writing and composing; performing constantly until his motorcycle accident in 1966.

I think that viability as a creative artist is self-defined regardless of age. We can’t believe an art dealer or concert promoter if they tell us we are washed up at 40. Some of us dive in early in our careers with that youthful passion that causes us to work every day. Dylan, now 77, never seems to have wavered in passion and song production over the past 60 years. And if it’s not passion, then it must be habit born of passion that continues his productivity. And as for me, I see no reason to quit stumbling to the drafting table every day; I still have ideas, and a desire to improve my work. It’s not the posterity of a large body of work that I’m trying to create, but the continued self-defined worth of an artist who still wants to compose and collaborate with excellent musicians. Thankfully, it seems that there are more of those now than ever before. Do I stop composing because the LA Phil hasn’t contacted me for a commission? Hell, no.

Usually Never at a Loss for Words



On Saturday night there was a concert devoted to my music in New York City featuring the world premiere of a work I labored on for most of last year, plus the first complete performance of a work that’s more than 30 years old. Writing at length about that concert here today seems awkward to me since I don’t want to be self-serving. But not acknowledging it at all seems equally inappropriate since it was the event of this past week that loomed largest to me (for obviously reasons) and I at least would like to officially thank everyone who showed up. (We barely had enough seats.) Also, I want to share a fascinating side conversation I got into with two old friends whom I introduced to each other during the late-night dinner after the concert, one of whom I had not spent quality time with in nearly eight years.
The two friends in question—Marc Ostrow and Sidney Whelan—both compose music in addition to their other activities in life, but neither describes himself as a composer. However, although Marc is a music business attorney and Sid is a real estate agent, their eschewal of the word composer has nothing to do with their day jobs. Both feel more comfortable with the word songwriter. Marc writes musical theatre material and also sings and plays jazz piano. Sid has written original material for groups he has been involved in—either as leader or a guitar-playing sideman—ranging from Afropop to rock to Americana roots music; he was the original guitarist in a punk bluegrass band I fronted for over a decade and is currently exploring acoustic blues. Normally, when folks who create music outside the realm of so-called classical music reject the moniker composer, I counter that the word is not genre specific. If someone is creating original music—whatever style or level of notational detail (it could even be completely un-notated)—he or she is engaging in the act of musical composition. In fact, to me, calling yourself a songwriter implies a much more specific skill set; it means you are creating words as well as music. If someone else is writing your lyrics, you are merely a composer! But since Marc and Sid both write their own words, I didn’t put up a fight.

My dander did however get raised a tad when both claimed it was much harder to write words than to write music. Sid explained this by saying that there are over a million words in the English language so the choices were daunting whereas with music he was only dealing with the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Marc concurred. When I as a sometime microtonalist was quick to counter that there are far more possibilities than those 12 (and as a bluesman Sid obviously knows this), he insisted that the range of pitch variance is still clearly smaller than word choice. Of course, pitch is an infinite continuum despite cognitive scientists’ assertions that the human ear cannot distinguish intervals that are smaller than 5 cents apart (roughly 1/20th the size of an equally tempered semitone, e.g. 1/20th the size of the distance between C and C#), which means at best we’ve got 240 possible pitches to work with. Even that number might be overly generous. Aaron Andrew Hunt created a pitch matrix based on the concept of just noticeable differences and came up with a scale of 205 equal temperament which is the basis of his tonal plexus keyboard. I bought one of these keyboards from him and have been trying to wrap my brain around those possibilities ever since; it will probably take the rest of my life.

Yet even if there are more usable words than pitches, or perhaps more words that are generally comprehensible to others, we use language differently than we use music. We use language to do just about every activity in our lives and we all learned how to speak before we had any notion of how words should be put together. Since language skills are instilled in us and are a necessary part of functioning within society, words should come more naturally than music. Even though music is something I firmly believe every human being is capable of playing as well as creating, societies often instill the idea that making music is a specialized skill (and creating it an even more rarified endeavor). As a result, most people feel uncomfortable making music whereas they still use language every day of their lives—since it’s nearly impossible not to. So shouldn’t it be much easier to create lyrics than to create music?

I consider myself a composer and I labor over every single note I choose to share with other people, sometimes for months. I spend much more of my time writing words and far more people have read my words than have ever heard a note of my music. Yet an essay—such as the one you are currently reading—is something I can usually crank out in a little over an hour. Admittedly when I was much younger, I wrote music much faster than I currently do and it was an agony to string words together on a page. I used to brag about writing a piano concerto in nine days, but in hindsight that’s a piece I no longer care if people ever hear. Then again, my prose, poetry, and song lyrics from that time are also unworthy of exhumation.

So then why do others think that it’s easier to write music than it is to write words? Maybe because words are something we are all engaged in, the stakes feel higher somehow. We can do anything with music; our choices with words are much more limited since the functionality of language demands that it has a higher level of comprehensibility. Even though Gertrude Stein started writing prose that defied syntax and coherence over a century ago and many poets and prose writers have explored similar terrain, verbal experimentation seems an even less mainstream activity than playing around with more than 12 pitches. But that contradicts Sid’s million words vs. 12 (or 205) pitches argument.

Then again, effectively putting music to words seems to require that the composer be able to deeply internalize those words and make them his or her own. This is something that can be incredibly difficult to do if those words are not yours as well. Perhaps songwriters have a much easier job of it than folks who only write music since the words they are writing music to are already theirs.