Posts Tagged ‘futility’

Why bother composing?

Jeffrey Parola sounds kinda bummed in his latest blog post. He outlines the all too familiar plight of the contemporary concert music composer (no appreciation, money, and little hope of either). He then earnestly asks: Why do we bother?

In my mind the answer is simple. 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.

Praise is nice, and earning a living doing something that you love is great, but just because you love something doesn’t mean you can make a living at it. And just because you wrote something doesn’t mean anyone should care. Money and acknowledgement have to be secondary concerns for a composer.

Of course we should try to capitalize on our work. Self-promote, market, try to get people to listen, care, and support . But that’s not WHY you should write. You write because no one else will create the things that you will create. And ideally you will love what you’ve written so much that promotion will be easy and enthusiasm will be contagious. But even if it’s not, you should like what you’ve created so much that even if no one else seems to care, it was worth the effort.

Perhaps that sounds kinda glib and self evident. But there’s a real nugget in there. A composer should think about the music they love and why they love it. They should think about how they feel when they listen to it. Then they should listen to their own music, and if they don’t feel similarly, maybe they’re doing something wrong. After all, if you don’t love listening to your own work passionately, why should anyone else?

And if you DO love listening to your own work, what else do you really need? Perhaps money and adulation will follow, perhaps it won’t. But you’ve made music that you love and that you love to hear. Strive for those things that we associate with success, but don’t let those goals ever be mistaken for the real reason you write music.

(By the way, you should listen Jeffrey’s work. It’s some really lovely stuff. All of it. And then maybe go write some of your own.)


Aug 2012

A new unit of time: The Wagner

After a full evening of writing music, I am proposing a new unit of time. The Wagner (abbreviation Wg). One Wagner is equal to one thousand minutes, approximately the length of the entire Ring Cycle. Here are some useful conversions:

1 day = 1.4 Wagners

1 year = 511.35 Wagners

1 minute = 1 milliWagner (1 mWg)

This unit will be particularly useful for superficially evaluating the works of other composers:

The entire works of Anton Webern can be contained on about 6 compact discs with a total running time of 36 centiWagners.

Or making us composers feel crappy about our own productivity:

After sitting at the piano for the entire evening, I realized that I was only able to compose about .5 milliWagners of usable music. Furthermore, my maximum rate of composition rarely breaks the 1 mWg/h mark.

Anyone know anyone over at ISO?


Oct 2011

Kushner, Communism, Serialism, and Obsolescence

Tony Kushner is not and has never been a member of the serialist party.

Tony Kushner’s epic play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (currently playing at the Public Theater) is a hyper intellectualized allegory disguised as a family drama about a clan of hyper-intellectuals. The action centers around the patriarch, Gus, a lifetime communist who has lived long enough to see his very ideology, the key tenets of his existence, the very fiber of his being fall squarely on the wrong side of history. What does one do when the system you’ve dedicated your life’s work to has been utterly repudiated? For Gus, unwilling to concede his beliefs as flawed, and uninterested in continuing a futile struggle, the answer appears to be an honorable suicide.

At first blush, this is a scenario that few audience members are likely to find applicable to their lives. In this post cold war era, the notion of a staunch communist is a quaint anachronism. For the modern audience, it’s just too easy to dismiss Gus’s ideals as wrongheaded. But what if it wasn’t so clear? What if Gus’s passions weren’t for an idea that was unpopular but not (yet) universally disregarded. Something like… contemporary chamber music? Read the rest of this entry →


May 2011

On the Not-So-Glamorous Life

My fellow singing waiter Mark Hernandez notified me (and all his other Facebook friends) of this cutting “dark bio” from regional opera performer Robert Orth:

Robert Orth’s “Dark Biograpy”

While it’s tongue in cheek (and damn funny) it offers an honest glance into the not-so-glamorous life of most working musicians that’s much more common than the still-not-as-glamorous-as-you-might-think lives of the brand name soloists in the classical music world. Consider the countless hours of practice and numbers of auditions Mr Orth had to endure to get to even this level, then realize how many fail to even get this far, and you can see why any father worth his salt would encourage alternative means of getting by.

But we do it anyway. Because, for the most part, it’s a lot of fun. And if we’re really lucky we get to participate in something amazing, perhaps even enduring. And sometimes, even if it’s neither amazing nor enduring, even if it’s getting paid to sing the same Puccini aria you’ve sung dozens of times before, while wearing a name tag and polyester apron and pretending to be a waiter at an annual reward dinner for the regional association of  morticians, the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd, genuinely appreciative of  the talents and skills you’re sharing, will make it all worthwhile.


Mar 2011

Merit vs Success

success = papers not blowing away

My friend Natalie Wilson recently did a remarkable job of setting an enormous goal and meeting it almost to the date. At the beginning of the year she challenged herself to write an entire play (her first) in nine months. Using the extended metaphor of birth (which time and again works uncannily well) she started a blog ‘Birth of a Play(wright)‘ to track her gestation. It’s a testament to her tenacity and determination that she not only finished the play in time, but secured enough funding (and interest) to put up a reading with top notch broadway talent early in November.

And now she’s facing the question that haunts so many early career writers after a big premiere. “What next?” Read the rest of this entry →


Nov 2010

Arts funding as psychological torture

Sad monkey. No grants for you.

Does arts funding do more harm than good?

It’s no secret that arts funding is scarce, especially for smaller, unproven, “emerging” artists. I wrote a post a couple of months ago about how competitive it is to become eligible to apply for most grants, let alone to actually win any of those grants. The organizations that evaluate applications are doing their best with the limited resources they have, but they’ll be the first to admit that there are many, many worthwhile projects asking for funding that they have to reject.

As a result, the emerging artist applying for funding is subjected to an awful lot of unpredictable and arbitrary rejection, largely unrelated to the quality of the work they’re making. Imagine a caged monkey subjected to electric shocks at random. Sad monkey. Very sad monkey.

Grant decisions are one of the few bits of concrete feedback an artist gets. It’s hard to intellectualize away such a clear yes/no rejection. Even though your brain knows not to take it personally, it grates at the soul. It takes a resilient, determined, self confident artist to keep producing work in the face of such explicit rejection. Meanwhile, the less assured artist will take it all to heart and their output will suffer.

For any grant awarded, hundreds of rejections go out. That’s an awful lot of bad mojo being spread out. It seems unlikely that the positive effect of the grant outweighs the psychological damage of the many rejections, especially if you look at the relatively meager amounts of the grants (sometimes under four figures.)

That’s a pretty tough conclusion. It seems wrong headed to tell these small grant makers to close up shop, that they’re doing more harm than good. Artists should just suck it up, know the lay of their land, and produce art only if the fire inside of them is strong enough to endure the occasional (or frequent) bucket of cold water.

Anyone got a better idea?


May 2010

Where often is heard…

I have to admit, before I started actively doing this composition thing, I was pretty naive about the whole endeavor. This is gonna sound pretty stupid and potentially a bit arrogant, but I figured that since you never heard much about new music or new operas, not many were being written, or at least not many good ones were being written. I thought I could just waltz in, write some stuff that was pretty good, and it would just get picked up and performed, simply by virtue of being pretty good.

Now I realize that all sorts of people are writing pretty good works, in many cases amazing works, and you just don’t hear about them because… well… because you just don’t. Turns out that just writing good work isn’t enough, not nearly enough.

In today’s New York Times there’s an article about an opera completed in 1978 that the composer had worked on for three years. And when he finished it, guess what happened?


The company that had commissioned it went under and the piece went back into his desk or bookshelf or attic, or wherever you put stuff that you’ve slaved over for three years. Probably filed under “D” for “Disappointment, Crushing”. It didn’t see the light of day for another 12 years when the composer decided to self fund a recording of the second act  in 2000.

Then something amazing happened.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  The fricking Pulitzer Prize. And then guess what happened…

Ummmm…. Nothing?

For another ten years, absolutely nothing. Even with a Pulitzer in his back pocket, he still couldn’t get any opera companies to put it up.  Back in the file it went, this time under “P” for “Produced, WhothehelldoIneedtosleepwithinordertogetthisthing”

Finally, this season, Santa Fe Opera is going to do a full production.  Not to get all Debbie Downer, but that’s thirty two years and one major prize after it was composed.

I guess it’s a success story. The kind that makes you wonder if maybe you’d rather try succeeding at something else…


Apr 2010