Tag: motivation

Ethical Artistry: Does Any of This Really Matter? If So, What Practical Steps Can I Take?

Airport Stairs

This is the final post in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are here.


The first three parts of this series consider a wide spectrum of topics related to ethical artistry. Part 1 discusses the conviction with which we approach our work and who it benefits; Part 2 considers aspects of the artistic process where ethical issues arise; and Part 3 suggests that we evaluate our work both quantitatively and qualitatively, helping us adjust and adapt over time.

Thinking through these many topics, two lingering objections come to my mind:

  • Many subjects I’ve discussed (e.g. what pieces you program, what venue you present at, etc.), are pragmatic and relevant for artists, but not necessarily of ethical consequence.
  • Even if these areas involve ethics, it’s just art and music, so does it really matter?

Here in Part 4, I’ll try to persuade you that these issues really do matter in important ways. I’ll also suggest some practical steps we can each take, if we care about confronting ethical artistry more critically as a field.

Does Any of This Really Matter?

The short answer: if you care that your art affects others’ lives, then yes, this all matters.

The main takeaway from Part 1 of this series is that our artistic conviction can inspire and transform those who encounter our work. If you reject this idea and feel that art and music are, perhaps, objects or experiences we appreciate (in the same way we appreciate, say, a table, or a lamp, or a stroll in the park), but that the art and music (or the table, or the lamp, etc.) aren’t meant to provide a deeper transformational experience, then many of the concerns I’ve raised may not have ethical implications for you.

Essentially, if your artistic project is being created purely for its own merit in your mind, or if it is intended more as entertainment or a commercial commodity, not aspiring to reach and transform others in a deep way, then your careful planning of each project step may be of pragmatic concern, but not of great moral consequence (to you), since your project’s outcome on others was never of particular concern. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way! When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life.)

Ethical Lamps

When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life. IMAGE: Rishab Lamichhane

However if, like me, you intend and indeed hope to have an impact on others’ lives with your work, or if you feel a sense of obligation to a larger artistic community regarding the types of projects you pursue, then each step along the way seems to have greater ethical relevance.

For me, art not only has the ability to affect others, this is in fact its essence and what makes it particularly redeeming and socially relevant.[i] If I hope to reach others with my conviction, and to be a conscientious member of my artistic community, aspects of my artistic process—everything in Part 2, from the type of music I program, to what composers I include or exclude based on a theme, to what venue I present at—is relevant with respect to my ethical intentions of reaching others. In fact, even beyond what I have intended, my art and process is ethically relevant on some level, because choices I make will invariably affect others.

Not all ethical categories have the same weight. I think we can agree that excluding a set of composers based on their gender, ethnic heritage, or musical style, seems especially troubling, whereas issues of venue lighting may not be that big of a deal one way or another. Yet, then again, as we think deeply about each stage of our artistic process, we realize seemingly innocuous issues—such as venue location, or lighting, or concert order—can end up limiting access to our event or affecting those who experience our art in powerful ways.

If we have a deeper overall commitment to considering and executing small details, and if this can result in more powerful artistic experiences for those who encounter our art, don’t we, as individuals and a community, have a moral imperative to consider these issues on some level?

What’s At Stake?

As an individual artist, you may feel a varying sense of personal responsibility towards others in your work. I don’t want to tell you what artistic and communal goals you should aspire to, and I believe deeply in this “broad view” idea, where some projects we pursue are centered on our personal goals, while others become a platform primarily for us to reach others. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, as NewMusicBox’s own Molly Sheridan emphasized so eloquently to me in our discussions on this series, we all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.

We all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.

As I mentioned in Part 2, I believe new music is alive and well, and it is finding support in corners far and wide across the U.S. and abroad. Yet, even in its most generous description, we can acknowledge that our work as contemporary musicians and artists is often more “fringe” than “mainstream” in terms of broad-scale popular culture. This is a major reason we have taken it upon ourselves as a community to advocate for new music, to run conferences, to start ensembles that better fit the needs of composers, and to create a culture where artists can be taken seriously even if their passions fall outside traditional paradigms.

The fact that we are largely creating this community for new music together, as individual artists and ensembles, makes our ecosystem somewhat fragile. There is no uniform set of guidelines we follow, and no corporate policy being passed down from on high. If we have competing interests, we sometimes detract from one another, and if we are not holding ourselves to high standards, the tenets we aspire to uphold may be easily eroded.

I don’t propose that we draft a “New Music Constitution” to govern the arts, but for those of us who do care about these issues, to what extent are we committed to making a difference in our work? Are we having serious conversations with other ensembles and groups in our sphere of the world? Are we willing to put in some long-term planning, and try to gradually evolve, aligning the execution of our artistic processes with our stated intentions?

Or, are we content with talking a big game about things like stylistic diversity, equality of opportunity, representation of composers from various demographics, and so on, but not actually following through in a way that is ethically consistent or impactful?

The change we seek in our new music ecosystem isn’t going to occur by spouting off in anger on a Facebook thread, or even in writing an article series like this. We have to take this passion and conviction we feel, and carry it through with real-world projects that directly engage others. For me, that has been artistic endeavors like Intricate Machines and Refractions and helping curate the American Voices project; outreach efforts with Chamber Music by the Bay and the Opportunity Music Project; and pedagogical efforts to discuss socially relevant texts like Alex Ross’s “Invisible Men” or Nancy Rao’s Chinatown Opera Theater in North America. For you, it may be other areas and ideas you are passionate about.

Some of us care deeply about these issues and have been looking for ways to make a difference; some want to get involved, but are seeking guidance for how and where to start; and some remain indifferent. In the new music community we foster together, if we only care about our personal careers and gigs, or if we are so caught up in a parochial view of the musical world that we are blind to a larger picture of what is out there, we won’t create the type of meaningful change that many of us are calling for today.

What Pragmatic Steps Can I Take?

Let’s say you are motivated to try and make a positive impact with ethical artistry. Here are some specific pragmatic steps you can take to keep these issues in mind in your career:

Individual Artists:

– Program with conviction
– Think about who your projects benefit
– Think deeply about the complex layers of the decision-making process
– If you see a problem, come up with a measured response, don’t just take the “easy way out”
– Keep in mind the big picture of your artistic work and try to find a balance in your efforts
– Use tools like statistics and data to help evaluate the steps you’re taking
– Always keep in mind the quality of your work and initiatives, not just their quantity

Programming Checklist:

– Are my repertoire choices consistent with my larger artistic goals?
– Am I presenting a narrow range or wide variety of pieces? Is this an intentional choice?
– How does any one project fit and balance within the larger scope of my work?
– Am I favoring or neglecting composers of a specific demographic?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– I don’t have to change things overnight; I have a long career and can work to evolve.
– I can make some short-term changes, and also keep in mind other long-term goals.

Educators/Institutions:

– Is my curriculum promoting egalitarian thinking about different musics, styles, and ideologies?
– Are my syllabi/courses/ensembles promoting or neglecting composers of specific demographics?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– Does my institution support a narrow or wide swath of artistic thought? Is this intentional?
– Can I teach a course specifically looking at issues related to ethical artistry?
– Can I weave issues of ethical artistry into other courses like composition, entrepreneurship,
theory, music history, etc.? Can I involve non-music professors in the discourse?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues with our students?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues as a community?

Ensembles/Conductors:

– Do I work with living composers regularly?
– Does my ensemble provide audiences with access to living composers?
– Am I able to commit to ambitious and high-quality dissemination of contemporary music?
– Am I balancing quality and quantity in my approach to new music programming?
– Are the contemporary works I feature often varied or often similar? Is this intentional?
– Am I promoting or neglecting composers of a specific demographic or style?
– Am I making time in my routine to actively listen to new works?
– Am I soliciting suggestions from others about new composers I can discover?
– Is my ensemble promoting educational initiatives for young composers?
– Through these combined initiatives, am I creating a culture for the appreciation of new music?

Community:

– Can we commit to thinking deeply about these issues, and not settling for “the easy way out”?
– Are we making time to reach out to colleagues and have discussions about these issues?
– Are we (individually) in a position of power where we can shed light on these issues?
– Are we (as a group) able to advocate to those in power, so we focus more on these issues?
– Are we listening to broad viewpoints with an open mind, or are we tuning out those who differ?
– When we do voice our opinions publicly, are we trying to thoughtfully affect positive change?


[i] I might add that while some find this notion of art’s transformational power too idealistic, its echoes are found in a wide swath of material: everything from pop-culture references about “the beauty of music” in movies like Shawshank Redemption, to articles like “We Need Music to Surive” by musician Karl Paulnack, to the notion put forth by Gustavo Dudamel that “music is a universal human right.” In fact, going back as far as the ancient writings of Plato’s Republic, we see the argument that music is important in strengthening the moral fabric in society and that music can uniquely bring people together because “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”

Show Up, Stay Awake, and Tell the Truth

A printed score manuscript, headphones, and a coffee mug.

I’ve long cultivated the habit of showing up at the drafting table every morning to compose. Since, I’ve reasoned, I wasn’t endowed with a particular ability to write fabulous music spontaneously, I needed to work (and work and work) on the details in order to produce something that I could be happy with.

Nothing happens if I don’t show up. No music gets written and no ideas emerge.

But nothing happens if I don’t show up. No music gets written and no ideas emerge. Our lives are composites of what we turn our concentration to, and if I’m turning my concentration to things other than composing, then those things become my focus and, in essence, my life. I think at the drafting table.

The sculptor Auguste Rodin told poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Il faut Travailler, toujours travailler [It’s necessary to work, always work]. And, when one does this, the work becomes the focus. It’s true that in the act of composing (painting, writing, etc.) friends and family may be sidelined. Often, time devoted to work is a trade-off. There is a Faustian price to be paid, but it comes more under the category of “things left undone,” rather than a Stones-like deal with the devil. Papers sit ungraded (if, like me, you’ve selected the academic route), meetings are left unattended (or at least not acted on), and class prep is circumvented.

Outside of the studio, you may show up and meet people who will change your life in positive and artistic ways. Late one Sunday night, I went to a club to hear a jazz guitarist I’d heard of around town and, there being no one else there, he talked to me at length during the break. It turns out that we shared many common interests in jazz and new music. Based on that conversation alone I ended up playing percussion with his band for the next three years—the meeting led to an economically cheerful situation and was musically enriching in the long run.

I was a guest on a radio show to promote a festival on which I was playing in Marseille, France. Seven festival performers were crowded around a mic. I ended up next to a saxophonist I’d never met before and, there on the radio, we improvised together for the first time. Afterwards he graciously invited me to his house and we ended up playing many gigs in the south of France for the next seven years. What if I’d demurred when asked to be on the radio because my French abilities were atrocious?

Other connections have led to performances, sudden improvisations, friendships, and projects. But such things don’t happen if we don’t show up. It’s hard sometimes to make an appearance. There are mornings when I don’t want to compose, evenings I don’t want to go out. At heart, I’m a hermetic sort of person who appreciates staying home to read Finnegans Wake aloud in my best Lucky Charms brogue while sipping Jameson. That desire keeps me home and makes showing up for the next morning’s writing session difficult from an excess of whiskey.

But, composing is habitual. At fifteen, I was obsessive about practicing the banjo. Did I say “practicing”? Playing is more accurate. I worked out enough technique to sit in my room and play (and play and play). One evening my father came up to call me to dinner. He stopped in the doorway and said, “You know, if you want to become a professional musician, you’re going to have to practice even when you don’t want to.” My dad perceived that I was playing and not practicing. I don’t know if he realized that he’d just told me something that would change my life, but that is advice I’ve embraced and remember even now on those mornings when I don’t feel like working.

The difficult thing about staying awake is tamping down my own inner desire to expound on my own ideas, thoughts, and problems. That approach teaches me nothing.

Showing up brackets other components. One is to stay awake to the surrounding environment, i.e., listening: listen to the music, listen to random sounds, listen to what is being said. The difficult thing about staying awake is tamping down my own inner desire to expound on my own ideas, thoughts, problems, etc., ad nauseum. That approach teaches me nothing, shuts out others, and is ultimately (sometimes suddenly) alienating. It’s better, I’ve discovered, to listen. We’re musicians; it shouldn’t be so hard. But shutting up and staying awake can be difficult. I’ve missed things in classes, seminars, workshops, and potentially interesting conversations by, most literally, sleeping, or by just not paying attention.

Another element of showing up is telling the truth. If I’m going to show up, I need to present myself as the person—the composer—I am truly. I won’t fool anyone anyway by trying to be something I’m not. One must compose what they want. After studying serial music for a number of years, I didn’t want to compose in that manner anymore. I started integrating folk melodies into my work and my music became more tonal sounding.

When I first heard John Adams’s Harmonium, I hated it. Couldn’t understand why a composer in this day and age would compose like that after all of the “ground-breaking innovations” of the past century. But I kept listening and, soon thereafter, when I was commissioned to write a short composition for orchestra, I found myself gravitating very much toward his tonal and orchestrational vocabulary.

Anytime I’ve tried to compose for an audience, I’ve failed. I’ve ended up writing music that no one, myself included, seemed terribly enthusiastic about.

My short composition for orchestra was eventually selected for a festival. At the wrap party, a selection-panel member hauled me aside and told me that he had strongly advocated for “that type of a piece” to be represented in their programming. Apparently, he had to really argue for its inclusion. One must be true to oneself in composing. Don’t worry about the audience (and especially don’t worry about what other composers think). If you’re being honest, the audience and critics will respond honestly. Anytime I’ve tried to compose for an audience, I’ve failed. I’ve ended up writing music that no one, myself included, seemed terribly enthusiastic about.

Each of these components—showing up, staying awake, and telling the truth—is hard to accomplish at one time or another. I’m my worst enemy. As already described, I have to fight myself to show up. It’s hard to pay attention, and it’s sometimes hard to be honest in what I say and to write the music that is truly self-expressive without the imagined spectre of critics looking at me askance.

But, showing up, remaining aware, and being truthful to a personal artistic vision and to others seem to be primary keys in making things happen. While it’s not certain that anything will happen by being fully present, aware, and honest, it’s definite that nothing will happen if you’re not.

Letting My Network Become My Classroom

When I decided that I was not going to grad school immediately after my bachelor’s, I initially feared becoming stagnant in my musical education.  Although I have never been shy about being an autodidact, my concern was that I would lose motivation, direction, or both. After I plunged right into a 9-to-5 position, I began to contemplate what it would look like to create a routine that would facilitate the continuation of my education in music while being outside of academia.

In that first year, I played gigs occasionally and taught a few students on a regular basis. Aside from an inspirational session at the St. Mary’s Summer Composition Intensive that summer, I hardly composed. I didn’t intend to take a break, but the combination of letting other priorities crowd my schedule and simply feeling a bit directionless allowed the time to fly by.

It occurred to me that I needed to surround myself with new people and new ideas in order to continue studying composition in the way that I wanted. Though simple questions such as “How far have you gotten this week?” or “What scores have you been studying?” are not the reason why I continue to compose, I came to realize that having the accountability and the support of peers and mentors motivates me a lot more than I’d like to admit.

Having the accountability and the support of peers and mentors motivates me a lot more than I’d like to admit.

Basically, I felt that I needed a more structured and musical environment to further my studies. However, pursuing another degree seemed cost-prohibitive at the time, and I had already decided that I didn’t want increasing debt to negatively impact the opportunities I would pursue.

My first major step in continuing my studies was to budget for private composition lessons, which I realized would cost much less than tuition in the meantime and would get me what I craved most: one-on-one mentorship. Utilizing a mixture of Skype and in-person lessons has helped to accommodate both of our schedules, especially when traveling to meet up is less convenient.

Eventually, I learned to make a conscious effort to connect with new peers as well. One of the greatest challenges for me as a musician outside of academia has been tapping into a community of those who are in similar stages in our careers, which is a natural feature of most degree programs. I’ve learned to better keep in contact with those whom I’ve met in school or at summer programs, for example. We share what we’re working on and discuss the challenges we are facing in our development.

I’ve also found that seeking out and attending local concerts and recitals regularly has helped— especially if I force my introverted self to hang around and chat with people afterwards. I can think of a few friends whom I’ve met while attending local concerts, and we still keep in touch and share our current work or the music that we’ve been listening to.

Over time, I’ve also found ways to break through the geographical barriers of meeting other artists. I used to shy away from social media until one of my teachers convinced me that it can help build a network when used well. My expectation was that online networking would primarily lead to more career opportunities, but what I didn’t anticipate was how much it would connect me to others who have much wisdom to share.

I used to shy away from social media until one of my teachers convinced me that it can help build a network when used well.

Thanks to others’ recommendations, I’ve stumbled upon several resources, like this website, where I can learn from other artists who I haven’t been able to meet in person. Below is a sampling of resources that I have been following over the past few years. Some are geared specifically to composers, performers, or teachers, yet much of the advice is transferrable from one field to the next. Some focus on the business aspect of music; others focus a bit more on the creative process, improving technical skills as an artist, or simply sharing new works. The best part is that many of these are free or low-cost. Most of these reference or link to other artists and resources as well, so I totally recommend following the rabbit holes as much as your heart desires!

 

Blogs:

deBreved: The Tim Davies Orchestration Blog, by Tim Davies

Of Note, by Robert Puff – a blog of tutorials on popular notation software

Audition Hacker, by Rob Knopper

Musochat – a monthly discussion forum about classical and new music

Bandestration: The Online Guide to Composing for Wind Instruments, by Bret Newton

 

Books:

Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, by Angela Myles Beeching

The Savvy Musician, by David Cutler

The Savvy Music Teacher: Blueprint for Maximizing Income and Impact, by David Cutler

Break Into the Scene: A Musician’s Guide to Making Connections, Creating Opportunities, and Launching a Career, by Seth Hanes

Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, by Elaine Gould

 

Podcasts. . .

. . .On business skills:

The Portfolio Composer, by Garrett Hope

Music Publishing Podcast by Dennis Tobenski

The Musician on Purpose Podcast, by Clair Condit and Allie Tyler

 

. . .On profiling artists and their creative processes:

Listening to Ladies, by Elisabeth Blair

1 Track Podcast, by Anthony Joseph Lanman

Composer Quest, by Charlie McCarron

Lexical Tones, by ADJective New Music

Meet the Composer, by Nadia Sirota

New Sounds from WNYC (technically a radio show, but some episodes are downloadable as podcasts on iTunes)

 

Video Channels:

Score Follower, Incipitisify, and Mediated Scores – a network of YouTube channels where scores can be viewed along with performances of contemporary works

Orchestration Online, by Thomas Goss


 

What the Stage Means to Me

First of all, I’d like to preface this by recognizing that I see a lot of composer-centered posts on NewMusicBox. This is insightful for me as a musician (and as a writer, in this situation) because, well, I’m not a composer (SPOILER ALERT: yet!).

So my not-so-hidden goal this week is to offer composers some context and insight regarding the professional challenges I’ve encountered and the goals that keep me motivated and moving forward, while also hopefully inspiring some performers while I’m at it. Composers want their music played well and played often, and we performers want to play awesome music, so maybe this dialogue will lead to a better understanding and more beautiful music being written and performed? A boy can dream.

In my last entry, I spoke about fear and judgment and how they impact my decisions within the context of artistic risk and career choices.

The one place I’ve recently realized they do not impact me is on stage. I think it is important for composers to know that when they write for me or for my chamber ensemble Sybarite5. Does this mean I might get some crazy, out there shit written for me now and then? Yup. IS that my goal? Nope. I just want composers to know that they should feel free to express their point of view in their music without being too worried about it. Almost every time I or my ensemble gets a new piece from someone who wrote it because they “think” it sounds like music “we play,” it never works. In contrast, when I get a piece from a composer that has their own focused and unique voice, I and my Sybarite5 colleagues are often are compelled to perform it. And perform it often! At the end of the day, if I’ve chosen to repeatedly perform a piece in public, it’s not usually because I hate it. It’s usually because it resonates with me in some way, and I want to communicate that on stage with the audience.

“Love Is a Dog From Hell” – Bukowski

Why do I do it? I love it. I love the music. I love the instrument—bass is the best! I love the freaky little ensemble we’ve made (#stringquintet #FTW). And more than anything, I want to share this love with the world when I perform.

Now, if something about that “share the love” sounded vanilla because it was carefree and simple, you’re gonna have to prepare for some disappointment. Love ain’t easy, and neither is playing and presenting new music.

But I don’t play because it’s an easy job. It’s not; it’s grueling. Life on the road away from family, kids, your support team, and your routine IS TOUGH. And, news flash, it doesn’t get easier. Anyone who wants to romanticize the routine of a traveling classical chamber musician is flat-out mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, we get to do great things. But there is a price to pay—including the literal cost of doing this job. I don’t play because it’s a good way to make a bunch of money. If I wanted to make a bunch of money, I’d be in real estate, finance, law, or medicine. Period, end of story.

But for some reason unbeknownst to me, life and music cannot be centered around money for me. It just cannot. There has to be something more.

Does this sometimes make my life scary, unstable, and difficult? YES. Do I always find a way to make things work? YES.

I make it work, but it’s challenging. So why do I love the stage so much? For some reason, on stage I can be true, honest, vulnerable, innocent, and authentic in a way that is meaningful to me (and ideally others). To me personally, the stage means FREEDOM.

To me personally, the stage means FREEDOM.

Freedom to be myself. Freedom to express. Freedom to share.

Why is it important for me be authentic on stage and who needs to know about that? How about the glorious people who write the beautiful music we wanna play. And, I think the music is the stuff that connects us humans to each other.

How does knowing this help composers? I want composers to know this because I’m hopeful that they will write and communicate more honestly and authentically, and know that it’s more than a concert for me.

How does it impact the work and its presentation? It often means that there are added layers of engagement in musical selections. There’s the music, the story, and the relationship with the composer.

How does the authenticity of the composer and the authenticity of the performer line up? I think in these cases, like seeks like. I’m interested in composers who have an authentic voice. More than that, I’m compelled to program their works and perform them repeatedly. I’m looking for a piece that is going to have a lifespan and not be a flash in the pan.

So when you write music for me, or my ensembles, you should have that info. And, chances are, if you have written for us, you do. Because we are friends with our composer colleagues. We hang. We want to hang. We get along. We value knowing the composers who write for us and having a truly collaborative relationships with them just as much as we value the music they write. Yes, you did read that right, we value the person as much the product. Why? Because when we play those pieces it’s like having a friend join us on stage.

How does Sybarite5 pick the people we work with and the music we play?

I guess I’ve got a week to write that down and let you know.

(Okay Ladies Now Let’s Get) In Formation

Three years after the events in question, I wrote a song cycle about the arrest and trial of members of Pussy Riot. Even as I did so, it seemed both ill-timed and too late. It had been two years since I had written my opera about the housing bubble crisis, however, and I felt like my overall output (especially my political output) had been pathetic. Plus, I wanted to write something cool and distantly relevant for the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, a female a cappella quartet that commissions new music.

My introduction to Quince came through soprano Liz Pearce. I met Liz at the 2012 Bowling Green New Music & Art Festival thanks to my friend Jonn Sokol, who had recently written a piece for Kayleigh Butcher, another member of the group. He mentioned that Liz liked singing contemporary works, and since I liked writing vocal works, maybe some kind of collaboration would hopefully work out. (Actually I was hoping something would work out, too.)

Later on Liz asked if she could stage my Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens during the 2014 BGSU MicrOpera show. I enthusiastically said yes, and she staged a brilliant show. I loved working with her, and she loved working with me, and I told her that I would love to work with her again, and that maybe I could write something for Quince. (More like, I strongly hinted that I would like to write something for Quince.)

It was good timing—they were looking for new repertoire at that time, so I quickly texted my librettist Kendall A and asked if she would be interested in a project. She responded with “Pussy Riot song cycle” and I instantly Facebook-messaged Liz.

Me: HOLY S***. Librettist is leaning toward basing a piece off the Pussy Riot story in Russia.

Liz: Hyperventilation commence AWESOME

So we began work on this piece in 2015. Granted, I thought maybe my librettist and I were three years too late: three years after Vladimir Putin was re-elected despite widespread accusations of vote-rigging; three years after Pussy Riot released “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away”; and three years after Pussy Riot was put on trial, deemed “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International, and sentenced to serve two years in a penal colony. A year later, Vladimir Putin signed a bill imposing jail terms and fines for—get this—insulting people’s religious feelings.

But I still wrote the piece. My librettist wrote eight poems, and I told her how cool I thought it would be to juxtapose songs influenced by punk music (since Pussy Riot is a punk-rock band) and those influenced by church motets (since Pussy Riot was arrested in a church). She tinkered with her words. I listened to The Clash and Hildegard for inspiration. And so, the song cycle Prisoner of Conscience was born.

I’m proud of this work, despite its lateness. It was one of those pieces that needed to be written, even if Pussy Riot had started to fade in our political memories. I didn’t care, and I was able to get funding from my institution to record this song cycle. But Quince was told by a record label that the song cycle was no longer relevant; nobody cared about Pussy Riot anymore. Ultimately Quince found a record label, and fortunately the album will be released on April 6 of this year.

In the back of my mind, I couldn’t quite fathom how Kendall was able to come up with the idea of the Pussy Riot Song Cycle so quickly, especially since this idea came about two years after they were front and center in our political consciousness, so I asked her. It turns out she had been following the punk band for years, way before they were arrested and put on trial. She was fascinated with the elaborate stagings of their anti-Putin protests and how they were drawing huge attention with these performances. And Kendall thought that’s what both art and punk should be about—if your surrounding overarching hierarchy is so corrupt, your art should find a way to cut through that. So when members of Pussy Riot were brought to trial, Kendall wanted to create art in honor of the spirit of the punk group, especially since they went as far as to sacrifice their own freedoms to expose the degradation of freedoms around them. She was thinking about writing an opera libretto about this and producing this show with NANOWorks Opera, but she felt that the timing wasn’t right and was waiting for an opportunity to share this work at the national level. It needed to be done right.

Now that we live in a time where there are rumors of Russia meddling with U.S. elections and the White House is doling out Fake News Awards, the piece is surprisingly relevant again. (I never thought it would be, nor did I want it to be.) Maybe my initial timing was off in creating this piece, but what I do know is this—we creators have been tasked with creating art. And if we creators are present and attuned to what is happening, we as global citizens will speak up via our music for what is right and just. If you are waiting for the right moment, the right moment is now.

I was going to give a few examples of what performers and composers have been creating in the past year, politically speaking. I was going to mention how Laura Dixon Strickling has been raising money via her recitals to support hurricane recovery awareness, since the government hasn’t helped out much. I was going to point out the Thompson Street Opera company’s production of Joshua Bornfield and Catlin Vincent’s Uncle Alex, an opera about immigrants coming to America, and note a performance of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit along the US-Mexico Border. But when I asked my friends via social media what music they have been creating since the 2016 November election, the response was overwhelming—it looks like you guys have been creating art this entire time.

You all have been so enthusiastic and forthcoming about your current projects that I thought the best place for this forum (outside of my Facebook wall) is via this database. Here is a public forum where we can share our works, and share with performers who also want to express how they are feeling during this time. Through our works and performances, we can be aware of what is going on around us, breathe, and collectively create something beautiful.

Questions I Ask Myself

In May 2017, I gave a talk at the New Music Gathering to share what I’ve learned about the practical work of being a composer. I’ve had some success writing percussion music, and I wanted to share exactly what I do for promotion, community building, professionalization, and business stuff in the hope that it could help others also have some success. I wanted to de-mystify this work (which is not hard, but can be mysterious), and so I pushed myself to be as open and transparent as I could.

That desire to open up took me farther than my spreadsheets. At the end of the session, I stepped back to reflect. I opened up about a sea change I’m going through, which is re-arranging my own ideas about what I think music is good at, what I have to offer through it, and what I want out of life.

I was nervous to share these very personal reflections, but I’m glad I did. It sounds like a lot of us are thinking similar thoughts but maybe not talking about them so much. Many people who were at that talk wrote to me to ask if I would share the text of one particular section. It was a list of tough questions that dog me about making my home in new music. They all more or less boil down to: is this a place where am I living my values?

I want to say up front: I’m not sharing them because I think they’re necessarily all fair questions, or kind questions, or because they add up to some kind of coherent critique of anything. I’m sharing them because they’re the ones that I wrestle with. Maybe you do, too.


THE QUESTIONS

Am I just trying to impress people and get famous?

Do the experiences I create draw people in or push people out?

My musical world seems to get smaller and smaller, and look more and more like me. Is that what I wanted?

Do I want to be in a culture where hierarchy and prestige have so much power? If not, would I ever have the guts to give up mine?

Do we composers really earn the reverence we are shown?

Our whole disposable capitalist culture is obsessed with novelty and progress. Is a value system based on the newness of music really as countercultural as I think it is?

How many of my ideas about new music really stand up to critical thought and how many are magical thinking?

Do I want to live a life in front of my computer making scores and sending emails?

How does the range of meaningful feeling I experience at a new music concert (or create for others to experience) stack up against other things I love—say, being outside on a summer night, cooking a big meal for friends, or swimming in a lake?

What’s the difference between being a champion of my community and being a partisan, fighting to expand the size and status of a little kingdom just because I happen to belong to it?

Am I OK making music basically with and for people who have received similar educations to me?

When I say “21st-century music” why do I really mean “21st-century music, except for everything made by people who aren’t educated in the culture I was”?

Have I used esoteric musical preferences and interests to feel different from (superior to?) other people? Has that isolated me? Can I in good faith encourage others to do the same?

Am I OK with an aesthetic ideology that values making people uncomfortable more than making people happy?

I LOVE to dance to music, maybe more than anything else in the world. Why am I in a musical culture with no dancing??

For all its education, the words of value I hear more than any others in this field are “weird,” “crazy,” and “cool.” Why is a sound cool if it’s crazy?   Is “weird” actually an interesting idea? Is “cool” enough for me?

Do the technical fixations I inherited—extended technique, virtuosity, hockets, structure, technology, etc.—actually relate to what I find meaningful and powerful in a musical experience? Do I use them to connect with people, or just to impress them?

I feel so much more joy and warmth and connection with others in informal musical situations and with amateurs than I do sitting on a stage in a big hall. So why do I focus so much of my energy on the big hall?

Do I want to learn from other people/traditions/cultures, or do I just want them to do music the way I do it?

Is my ignorance of other musical cultures just ignorance, or is it indifference? Is there a shade of contempt in that indifference?

Am I a snob?

If what I value most is connecting with other people deeply and sharing meaningful experiences, is the way I’m doing music really achieving that?


Forest Trails

Photo by Jens Lelie

I have been wrestling with these questions for the past few years. My ideas about success, music, life, what I want and what I have to offer—I feel like they’ve been melting and are only now, maybe, starting to take a new shape.

When I was a teenager I wanted music to be my passport to the world. I had friends who spent months at a time as happy vagabonds busking in Europe, traveling all over, never needing a hotel, always discovered and taken in by their counterparts after flying their hippie flags. That was my dream—to be able to walk up to any campfire, join in with my guitar, and, by the end of the night, turn some strangers into friends.

I snuck into music school in college and my dream changed. Instead of a passport, I wanted a VIP pass: access to those imagined Arcadias with names that glowed, words I’d never heard but that all of a sudden seemed very, very important—Aspen! Tanglewood! Darmstadt! I dreamed of a future where I’d gain admittance to a sequence of ever-smaller and ever-more-enviable rooms.

I never went to those places, but I have been in some very small and enviable rooms. I don’t want to sound ungrateful: some of them have been to my great personal and professional benefit and I’ll probably never give up the perks, no matter how conflicted I feel about them. But the truth is, I just don’t feel motivated anymore by the prospect of impressing people enough with my CV to move into the next, higher, smaller, more exclusive room. It’s unnerving, honestly, to look inside myself at the hole where that ambition used to be. I ask myself, a little bitterly: Are you getting lazy? Are you giving up?

What’s unsatisfying to me about those rooms is that they’re all in the same country. I’m back to wanting a passport. I don’t want to be a partisan for a territory, I want to travel to new ones. I want to connect with people who aren’t just like me. Music is a great way to do that, but it’s not enough to just open our doors to others; we have to be willing to leave our comfort zone, and take the risk of stepping into theirs. And when I arrive, the last thing I want to do is impress them with my CV. I want to impress them because I can listen deeply. Learn quickly. Fail happily. Connect openly.

As these feelings have become conscious in me, I have started to steer my life in a different direction. I’ve found two new ways to be a musician that feel much more like passports. Both lead me out of new music. One is learning to play the berimbau, which led me into capoeira, the national martial art of Brazil (at which I am a happily failing beginner). The other is teaching music at a prison, which has shown me that what I love about music—where I think it has power and where I have the most to offer—has nothing to do with newness, with style, or with my CV. It’s in how music creates a common ground for ambition, learning, creativity, self-discovery, and joy. It’s in how music can bypass guards and barbed wire, stigma and shame, and give people a way to celebrate and inspire each other, no matter how cut off they are.

I’ll write more about that in the next post.

Why I Make Music

Nick Norton's desk
Most of the time I take it for granted that I’m a composer. When I tell people that that’s what I do, the conversation usually turns to the music itself (“oh, so soundtracks?”) or to the sometimes-tricky financial side of the equation (“right, but what’s your job?”). These questions are similar to what I concern myself with in the day-to-day of it, too: What project needs attention? How does this transition sound? Are parts going to be ready in time? Who can I get to pay for this flight? The one question that no one ever asks, however, is simply “why?”

I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but in a curious one. What is it about making art that drives us to pick a path in life that involves thousands upon thousands of hours of dedication, serious financial risk, and, in many cases, rejection after rejection after rejection? This is not to say that you can’t make music as a hobby or just for fun and self-enrichment, but that’s not the way that I’m currently pursuing it. For me, there are quite a few answers to this question, which make themselves felt to varying degrees at different times. They all play a role, though, and they add up to something that, for me, makes it worth fighting through the struggles (both artistic and personal). Here’s why I make music:

Making music excites me, more than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced.

While growing up I’d always planned on doing something in or with music, but I can pinpoint the exact moment that I decided that something was composing. It was while hearing the third bar of the first piece I ever wrote for someone else to play. As an undergrad, I had started out as a double major in guitar and political science and had always written music for my bands, so I decided to take an introduction to composition course with Harvey Sollberger. Our first assignment was to write a short piece for flute, using only five pitches, which he would then workshop with us and perform. I spent the week coming up with something that I’d probably now find pretty dull. It didn’t matter. On the second beat of the first bar I was totally enraptured. I had an idea in my head, and now it was being turned into something real in the world. This was not considered a miracle? Somewhere in the second bar I did some calculations, thought about what I’d enjoyed in life thus far, how much I hate having a routine schedule and how much I like working with people, and on the downbeat of the third decided to change my major and abandon any plan B. No plan B makes me feel the way that creating music does.

I have some kind of artistic impulse, and I love introducing people to new things. Music is just the thing that I am best at.

I love to introduce people to new experiences—I worked as a tour guide in college, am pretty obsessed with finding craft beers that people who say they don’t like beer end up loving, and get a surprisingly similar kick out of making a mixtape for someone as I do from inventing my own sounds. Music is the thing that I’ve spent the most time with, and have the most experience in, so that aspect of my personality most often manifests itself in composing. Now, the things that get my mind going, and that I want to explore, could be equally well dealt with in any medium. I’d likely be just as satisfied and excited making visual art, but I’m a terrible painter. Music is my most developed skill, so it makes sense to me to use it to do the things I want to do.

Music has done so much for me. I want to do that for someone else.

This is more of a social answer than a musical one. When I was growing up, I was kind of a nerd or loner or whatnot. We moved a couple of times, and the town we ended up in placed a lot of value on adolescents’ athletic abilities and/or how hard they partied. I went a lot of years without a lot of friends, until I found the (rather small) neighborhood punk scene. Before finding it, I always had music to hang out with and work on, and after finding it I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my feelings and could use a shared interest in music to connect with people. There were even songs about just that, and I’d always read interviews with guys in little-known bands where they said, “if one kid [listener, regardless of age] connects with something in our music and finds something he can relate to or that makes his day a little better, we’ve completely succeeded.” I wish I could tell a lot of those guys how much what they did meant to me—I did write John K. Samson a letter once, and he actually wrote back!—and I do truly hope that I can do that for someone else.

There’s war and global warming and terrorism and corporate greed and student loans and corrupt cops and terrorism. The universe is probably meaningless, and we’re basically all screwed. Music is nice.

Why not, really? I’d rather be playing guitar or putting together a concert than fighting a losing battle against spacetime.
Norton at the beach

*

In re-reading these answers, the one that might not come across, and needs to be emphatically added, is that I love the stuff. I love making it, and I love listening to it, and I feel insanely lucky that our society makes it possible for me to pursue those things instead of pursuing subsistence. We have an extremely small amount of time in the universe. Spending it doing stuff that I don’t love just seems like a shame, and enough of a shame that I’m down to work myself to the bone to avoid it.

Onward, then. I’ve got a piece to finish.

On the Purpose of Art in 700 Words or Less

Moving to a new town has triggered something inside of me that makes me question everything I do. In trying to analyze the elements of music—Where does it take place? With whom? In what notation? With what instruments?—I’ve been pulled back to a central question: What is our music for? For that matter, what is our art for? There is a lot of pop-science writing these days focused on the inevitability of music—the human soul’s yearning to make art, to create, to play. However, I’m going to lean away from that and over the next, errrrr, 600 words, attempt to explain what ALL ART is for, really. This is not a holistic survey, but is representative of my own musings of late.

1. The writer Dorthe Nors put together this fantastic piece on Ingmar Bergman and his creative solitude for the Atlantic which articulates the core job of the artist. Bergman, reflecting on his relative isolation living on a rural island off Sweden, noted, “Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.”—literally too much human being inside of him, too much of the human experience. Nors goes on to give a clear and thoughtful analysis of generating and making work:

Everyone feels this, but artists try to capture the feeling through art, contain it within some permanent form of expression.  And when I read a good text or see a good movie or enjoy a good piece of art—it is the humanity, this poured-out human experience, that I detect.

You should really read the whole article. I’ll wait.

It’s an essential idea: a temporary feeling of humanness articulated and made permanent in an object or composition. This is where the value lies in a system of notation that prizes concrete elements of harmony and rhythm. Works can be performed and re-performed over time. This is why we can share Bach and revisit times long gone. This is our first job.
2. Marcel Duchamp characterized art as a “game played between all people of all periods.” This frees us from the obligation of manifesting a sensibility of greater humanity inside one of our permanent (or less-than-permanent) works. Our humanness becomes a characteristic imprinted on the action, the play, the game of making things. Cage took this to heart in his lecture “Experimental Music” (1957):

What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Our humanness is enough, and naturally imprints onto the work. All facets of our humanness are welcome, especially chance and indeterminacy, which I think are the core ethos of games (along with pleasure and failure). This is our second job: to play.
3. In his essay “Relational Aesthetics,” Nicolas Bourriaud vainly attempts to put all of Western art history into a production of relationships between humanity and art. His broad overview begins,  “Let us say that artworks were first situated in a transcendent world, within which art aimed at introducing ways of communicating with the deity….” All Western devotional music acted in this function for generations before art and music began exploring the relations between man and the physical world beginning around the Renaissance. Paraphrasing from Bourriaud, consider the anatomical realism that came about in visual art and the eventual rise of unnamed symphonies and pastoral music, which doesn’t explore the divine but relates music to the land itself. Bourriaud suggests that the third relationship is one that developed in the latter 20th century with the rise of relational art, or art that is “focused on the sphere of inter-human relations.” The funny thing is that music has always pointed to our social relationships as a collaborative activity taking place in real time and space. However, Bourriaud is talking about something quite different: art projects that exist as social works.


Francis Alÿs attempting to move a mountain outside Lima, Peru is a perfect example. The work invites hundreds of locals to move a mountain, to shovel and work. The group bands together, becoming a community through the work. When the piece is over, they disband and go back to Lima carrying with them the story and memory of that visceral experience. Music works this way in particularly memorable concerts—they live as stories we tell again and again. While visual art has just discovered relational work, music has been living it for generations. This might be our third call: to be social.

Conclusion I.
In searching for a source for our music, I only find more questions. How do these ideas become manifest in the work? Which archaic ideas resonate with our modes of composition, experimentation, and creation? From what future perspectives will we create from? How are old ideas made new, and new ideas made engaging? How will we use music to investigate these futures? How will these large answers impact the way that I make: my process, my everyday?

Conclusion II.
After reflecting on these thinkers and their personal answers, I see a collective call for humanness, play, and social delight. In determining the answer for yourself, it might point you to different tools, notations, instruments, or actions that lead you outside the traditional bounds of music making, but in attempting to answer such a large question we become more considered in our approach to making it.

Music Writers on Writing: Peter Margasak

As a performer working my first job as a music writer, I’ve asked myself a lot of questions about what it is I’m doing. What’s the role of the writer—or, more ominously, the critic—in today’s musical ecosystem? Does anyone even read concert reviews anymore? How much critical distance is too much or, in my own case, too little? In this series of interviews, I’m going straight to the source—music critics themselves—to find out why they do what they do.

My first conversation is with Peter Margasak, whose eclectic taste and thoughtful writing have been mainstays of the Chicago Reader music pages for almost twenty years. Margasak’s newest venture, as curator of the Frequency Series at Constellation, puts him in closer relationship to Chicago’s contemporary music scene than ever before. The series will place Chicago’s new music ensembles alongside improvisers, electronic musicians, instrument inventors, and world music groups drawn from the diverse musical communities that Margasak covers. Our conversation revealed Peter as a down-to-earth, curious, constantly self-educating music journalist with a growing interest in advocacy.

Ellen McSweeney: Are you a musician? How did you get started as a music writer?
Peter Margasak: I’m not a musician. My parents just always had records. Neither one was really a musician, but they’d have records and I’d always listen. I remember getting a little toy record player when I was five or six. I was getting really into Top 40 by third grade, and my dad would tell me to listen to actual albums!

The thing that really put it into overdrive was getting into punk rock. I got into it largely for superficial reasons—because it was a weird thing to do—but then I listened long enough that it stopped being a social marker for me. I started listening to jazz records—the kids didn’t think that was cool.

I started a ‘zine called Butt Rag, and I did nine issues. By the end, they were 100 pages long and I was getting printed on newsprint. And that’s how The Reader found me. They used to have a column called Spot Check, and they had seen Butt Rag, which was very snotty. And they said, you need to do that here.

EM: What do you think about this idea that the critic needs to be an expert?

PM: The older I’ve gotten, the more cautious I am. When I was younger, I had no problem writing about music I had no idea about. Now I try to be really careful when I write about stuff, because I’m admittedly kind of a novice with [contemporary classical] music. I know there’s people that read it who are probably like, “Who is this guy??”

Older jazz musicians will come to me and say, “Are you a musician? No? Well, how can you write about music then?” My response is, “If you’re not a musician, how can you listen to music?” I don’t analyze stuff musicologically for people. I don’t think people that read The Reader want that. You don’t want to alienate people when they open it up.

I think a lot of the music I’ve been taken by and written about can be appreciated on different levels. Like [Ensemble Dal Niente’s performance of Georg Friedrich] Haas—all that weird psychoacoustic stuff in there. It makes me think of La Monte Young, something about the physicality of it. I don’t have to know everything about Beethoven to appreciate Haas.

Ensemble Dal Niente performs George Friedrich Haas's in vain

Ensemble Dal Niente performs George Friedrich Haas’s in vain

EM: What draws you to contemporary classical music?

PM: What draws me is that it’s not, unlike the rest of classical music, built around the 5,000th recording of a piece. I mean, I want to know what the best recordings are, but with newer music, sometimes only one recording exists. That’s “the record.” The composer is not this precious historic figure; he’s this person that’s in the room. That’s what I see happening here. The Marcos Balter stuff with Deerhoof—it’s really exciting to see that. Musicians have this shared sensibility where that collaboration isn’t crass or artificial. It makes sense now—they can work together. The media tries to sort musicians into neat categories. The reality has never been that simple.

EM: Is there any negative baggage for you around the term “music critic”? Is “music writer” better?

PM: Working at The Reader, one of the things I had to actually learn was how to be a journalist. “Music critic” isn’t satisfactory to me. I’ve learned to do reporting, to do research. It’s not about saying, “This music makes me feel this way!” The context and the story behind it are often just as rewarding, and are crucial to understanding the actual music.

When I wrote about Katinka Kleijn collaborating with Dan Dehaan and Ryan Ingebritsen, it took a lot of back-and-forth for me to understand what they were doing. I can’t tell you how many emails I had with Daniel, learning how the technical side works. I need to understand it if I’m going to tell someone else how it’s used. I want to not just put out my opinion, but also inform people.
When people ask what I do, I just say music journalist. Criticism is part of that. I have no problem with music criticism; I think it’s just not an adequate description of what I do.

Intelligence In The Human-Machine Photo courtesy Industry of the Ordinary

Katinka Kleijn collaborating with Dan Dehaan and Ryan Ingebritsen for Intelligence In The Human Machine
Photo courtesy Industry of the Ordinary

EM: How do you decide what to cover? What guides you internally as you decide what concerts to go to and what deserves coverage?

PM: Some weeks, when there’s been a lot of touring stuff going on, I have a list of 20 things I could cover. But maybe I can only do six. It’s a combination of writing about things that are underexposed and deserve to be heard, but also things that I feel like I have something to say about. I don’t want to just write about something where there’s no need for me to chime in. I want to choose something where I can add something to the conversation. I don’t write about stuff that I hate. At The Reader, we like to focus on things that are going to be positive. There’s already not enough space; why waste it on being negative about something?
For me, it’s tricky because i’m interested in so many different kinds of music. It’s maddening trying to keep up with all of it. My wife could tell you how maddening. She has to live with all the detritus.

EM: What do you think is the ideal role of a music journalist?

PM: I think the role is to lead to discovery, to inform, to filter. That’s one thing you hear about with the internet. We don’t need critics anymore because everyone can share their opinion. But when everyone does that, then who do you trust? You have to build a relationship with a writer. Sometimes if a certain writer likes something, I know I’m not going to like it, or vice versa.

A music writer is a storyteller. That was one thing I learned at The Reader: you tell a story. The other stuff, like educating, is happenstance. You don’t try to be a teacher, dictating what people need to know. If you tell it as a story, people absorb it in a much more natural, meaningful way.

I think because of my broad interests, I can connect things: classical music to jazz, or to noise. There are these through-lines that a lot of people don’t really think about. I just wrote about Takehisa Kosugi—kind of a relentlessly experimental musician, part of the Japanese Fluxus movement, one of the main composers for Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe. [On] one of the performances he did (when he recorded for Cunningham), Sonic Youth, and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin played with him. At The Reader, that might help draw people in. That’s not my main job, but when I see the opportunity to draw that kind of connection that will help people, or make them curious, I take it. I think seeking that connection is the way I’m wired.

EM: [clickety clack clickety clack type type type type type]

PM: You’re a really fast typer. I wish I could do that. I hate transcribing more than anything.

Secondary Concerns

In a recent blog post, Jeffrey Parola writes about some of the struggles facing contemporary concert composers in today’s world:

Affirmation from friends, family, and colleagues is scarce – very few people listen to, like, understand, and/or respect your music… material returns for your work are paltry or non-existent, and… it is incredibly difficult to find a secure and gratifying job.

While Parola is talking about his own personal experiences, I’d wager that most composers have dealt with similar issues. I’ve certainly felt discouraged by many of the same things Parola describes, and I find his honest account of these concerns to be brave and valuable.

Meanwhile, Brian M. Rosen argues that composers cannot and should not rely on external affirmation or compensation:

Creation of music that didn’t exist before HAS to be its own reward, devoid of compensation, recognition, or praise. If that drive for creation for its own sake doesn’t exist, I might humbly suggest that a composer should just stop… Money and acknowledgement have to be secondary concerns for a composer.

Rosen’s statement is hard to argue with on its surface. Certainly a composer has to, on some level, enjoy the process of composing. However, in my mind it poses a solution to a non-existent problem, the mythical “composer who doesn’t love composing.” It also omits the fact that external factors like money and acknowledgement can have a profound impact on one’s intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, I think it disguises a deeper and more insidious problem: that our intrinsic love and need for making music can deprecate the real world value of our hard work, and make it all too easy for others to exploit.

As one counterexample, Eric Whitacre was able to redefine what his music was worth to others almost accidentally, through sheer stubbornness:

Whitacre became known for the steep fees he charged for new pieces. A vague mixture of naïvete and instinctive savvy led him to price his work at least three times as high as other composers’. “I just kept pushing the envelope on commission fees,” he said. “It’s just like Craigslist, where if you sell your futon for ten bucks everyone thinks it’s a crap futon, but if you list it for five hundred everyone thinks it’s a great futon. So I just priced myself into a place where it was perceived as more valuable than it was.”

But even more salient than money, I think, is the issue of “relevance” that Parola mentions. It’s all fine and good to make music for its own sake, as Rosen proposes, but that’s not quite enough for me, and I don’t think it should be enough. While composing is a solitary activity, it’s one that radiates outward, as a means of expression or communication. If it doesn’t communicate, or communicate in the way you want it to, that is a definite problem, and I don’t begrudge anybody for feeling discouraged by that. This dissatisfaction shouldn’t be ignored—it’s a wake-up call, and it should be listened to very carefully.

Parola’s account has a happy ending of sorts, upon finding “complete relevance” in his role as a church organist—a role where his music is appreciated and respected. I think every musician worth their salt deserves to find this, and if they don’t have it yet, to keep looking. For me, it’s not any one particular role, but a combination of roles that I find fulfilling in different ways, from playing accordion in a klezmer band to writing soundtracks for video games to, yes, composing concert music. I do all of these things because I love them deeply, but it’s indisputable that some of them carry more extrinsic rewards than others, things like rowdy enthusiastic crowds or fan videos of ridiculous mashups.

If I’d kept my head down and refused to be affected by these “secondary concerns,” I might never have discovered these things that have immeasurably enriched my musical life. It’s even possible that I would have given up composing entirely. Maybe my motives aren’t pure enough and I really should “just stop” as Rosen suggests, but I’d really hate to see many other composers take the same advice. So I have to be contrary: if the drive for creation for it’s own sake isn’t enough on its own, please don’t just stop!

Keep going.