I often find myself trying to legitimize music composition as a worthy profession among the sea of others gracing our tax forms and other official documents we’re required to turn in to the Powers That Be every now and then. You might see ‘SELF-EMPLOYED’ from the drop-down menu (or ‘ARTIST’ if the people asking are really liberal). ‘MUSICIAN’ hits the spot, but how many avenues branch out from there? Quite a few.
I was having a discussion with a few colleagues a couple of weeks ago about living and working as a composer. It turns out that not one of us could count and surpass a dozen names of composers living today who write music for a classical concert setting, that being their only job. Most noteworthy composers today hold positions as professors at colleges and conservatories around the world. A lot of times, commissions for new works supplement the salary that a music school provides (“Oh, you’d like me to write a piece for you? Hmm… it would be nice to make a couple extra bucks – ya know, being a composer and all.”). Of course, the world needs teachers; and composers should be teaching composition. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be seeing a host of talented young composers having their pieces played by our very fine orchestras (ZING!).
I was having another discussion with a colleague about programming new works and he mentioned that even putting something like Beethoven 4 on a program is a stretch. And he’s right. It’s difficult to blame orchestra directors for their programming decisions. Even though I’d like to see it happen, performing mostly recent compositions would not serve an orchestra well, economically speaking. The fact of the matter is that if a potential audience sees an advertisement with “A New Work by Composerman McMusicpants” in lieu of the expected Brahms symphony they’re going to stay home – all 75 of them. This is, of course, a generalization, but one that seems to ring true in most cities. So what is the problem? Well, there are a number of reasons. The first thing that comes to mind is art music’s horrible PR campaign. You might be lucky to see a report on 60 Minutes once every few months about a child who might be the next Mozart. That’s about it. Even accomplished living composers who have been around the block can’t seem to make a splash in the media (apparently, the name ‘John Adams’ is destined only to be associated with an American politician bearing a strong resemblance to an owl – hey, come on… he does).
The reality is that the number of consumers required to propel an industry built on new art music does not exist. There is no magic wand (I suppose ‘baton’ might be more appropriate) that will change things. The best thing a composer can do is to look for new artistic outlets and attempt to attract attention that might not be had in normal arenas. No one wants to sacrifice his/her own compositional voice and so it’s up to composers to find areas that will accommodate them.
Considering this, there are some serious attempts being made (some with great success) to bring new music to a wider audience. In East Lansing, MI, there is a set of composers and performers involved in a concert series known as SCENE&heard (where new compositions are performed in the company of new works of art). The series has attracted an interested audience and has opened up the general public to new music. Hopefully, we will be seeing more musical ventures like this popping up around towns and cities across America. So, if you’re feeling frustrated as a composer try not to get too depressed about the current status of new music. The music world is changing and there are plentiful opportunities emerging. This is progress.