What Does It Mean To Be A Mid-Career Composer?
Being a “mid-career” composer can be a somewhat confusing designation, but it has Dan Joseph asking some hard questions: If I just keep doing what I’ve been doing, will an actual career eventually develop? Do I keep plugging away with a defined style and identity in hopes of finding some form of conventional success, or do I keep exploring new ideas and interests without regard for being noticed or recognized?
It’s a challenging time to be a new music composer. Not that it has ever been easy, but with the particular mix of economic, political, cultural, and ecological instability that’s descended upon us recently, one has to wonder how much of our national musical enterprise will survive, and for how long. How do we composers navigate the current conditions so as to continue growing our artistic practice?
With that as a backdrop, I have recently arrived at a kind of personal and artistic crossroads, highlighted by having recently entered my 50s and having just sent my one and only child off to college. Reaching these two major life milestones has led me to reflect in a new way on my life as a composer, reviewing what I’ve done thus far and considering where I might go from here. And, as has happened before at other major life junctures, I have a strong drive to radically reinvent myself artistically. In reaching this life moment, I am—like many of you, perhaps, whether in your past, present, or future—reflecting on and appraising my choices and accomplishments, and in these four short essays I will try to reveal as openly and honestly as I can what it looks like to be pursuing a life as a composer at this time and place, from my particular station in life. In this first essay, I want to explore what it means to be a “mid-career” composer.
Although there doesn’t appear to be a precise age attached to it, mid-career generally seems to refer to someone who has spent a good number of years pursuing their vocation following their formal studies, but is not yet approaching old age and retirement. This can be a somewhat confusing designation for many of us who, like myself, have followed non-linear and non-traditional paths and for whom traditional career milestones have come at odd times, if at all. In my case, I didn’t start serious musical training until I was in my twenties, having already had a brief career as a rock musician, and I didn’t really begin my current career as a new music composer until I was around 30. I did enjoy a brief period of being a younger, so-called “emerging” composer, where there was tangible interest in my work and where it might go. I was offered performance opportunities, some recording deals, offers to submit proposals for festivals and commissioning programs, and overall seemed to possibly have a career on the rise. But alas, a true “career” never did materialize—that is to say, my musical profile never developed to a point where it could actually support me financially and fill my calendar with engagements. The musical output of my emerging years certainly grew and developed, and to a large extent I reached a degree of artistic fulfillment, but in a professional sense, I never fully emerged. So now I find myself in my early 50s, at mid-career, having pursued many musical threads to their logical conclusion, and am now wondering: what next?
One of the more vexing questions for me has to do with the fact that, for the most part, I feel that artistically I have achieved much of what I would have hoped to by my early 50s. I’ve developed a coherent body of work, my music has been performed consistently, there have been several recordings released of my music, and I’ve accumulated press clippings. And yet, there it sits, 20 years worth of work going largely unnoticed. Is it merely a matter of timing? And if I just keep doing what I’ve been doing, will an actual career eventually develop? Or is it that my work to date is just not interesting or marketable enough to build a career around? Or, alternately, is the notion of a true “career” in new music even a realistic thing? Obviously in some cases it is, but these success stories seem more the exception than the rule. This is, I think, a key conundrum for many of us: Do we keep plugging away with a defined style and identity in hopes of finding some form of conventional success, or do we keep exploring new ideas and interests without regard for being noticed or recognized? Having a consistent style and profile can, over time, help establish a career, but as an artist, it can be frustrating and limiting.
When you’re younger, this tension between artistic pursuits and tangible outcomes matters much less. After all, you have your whole life ahead of you, so you can experiment as much as you like. But at mid-life, the future is not all still ahead of you. Given your somewhat limited time remaining, what is the best use of the time you spend on artistic pursuits? Can you even afford to keep making music without a successful career? And, perhaps most importantly, do you have anything to say about the vital musical-artistic questions of the moment?
I’m not sure I have the answers, at least not yet, but over these next few essays I hope to arrive at some form of resolution to some of these questions. In the next piece I’m going to explore what it means to be an unaffiliated composer, one who has no particular ties or responsibilities to academia or other cultural institutions, a freelancer, a DIY-er, a “maverick”—in short, a composer who seemingly answers only to his or her own muse.