Composers at Work

Composers at Work

In Dan Visconti’s excellent NewMusicBox post, he postulates that some members of Generations X and Y have formed a new creative class. (In an illuminating comment, “composter” suggests that this is actually not such a new phenomenon and that this class may actually be in decline, an interesting point that bears further consideration.) In his column, Dan posits that one of the choices made by members of this new class was to eschew monetary gain in pursuit of more leisure time. He further explicates that this essentially derives from shifting perspectives of the line between work and leisure (and indeed, he clarified in an off-list communication that he was suggesting a “protean definition of work”); the original usage of the term “leisure” in his article appeared to arise from the perspective of the outsider watching these creative people. For me, this raises a very serious issue: for a composer, what is work?

For people with a standard job, work time is by definition any time spent at the place of business. They categorize any activity pursued while at the workplace—from client calls to welding joints to chatting with other employees to tweeting about lunch—as work. In addition, a lawyer might bill clients for all-night sessions reading prior case precedents. Further stretching beyond the standard workplace, an entrepreneur might remain in a home office while taking meetings, researching existing products, and developing new ideas, all as part of a day’s work. Meanwhile, composers go to concerts, listen to music, play music, and often sit idly staring out a window.

Our language for music-making activity doesn’t help the situation. When we create sounds at an instrument, we are “playing.” When we work to hone our performing capabilities, we are “practicing.” We are not limited by a standard workplace, instead creating out of our home or on our travels. And many of us need a monetary vocation to support our musical avocation, which further suggests that our endeavors should be properly categorized as recreational activities. I believe that this is incorrect, and would like to argue that these are business-related activities.

For research, we listen to recordings; read books, reviews and articles about music and other arts; follow discussions at various blogs and arts websites; and attend concerts (among other activities). When we socialize after these concerts, we are building business relationships. While most people believe that they are wasting time when they utilize social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, composers often find that the ties fostered by these networking sites lead to commissions and performances. We assess all of our experiences—the media we watch, the places we visit, the conversations we have, the items we read—in order to find inspiration for our compositional creations. Even when we attempt to create blocks of leisure time for ourselves, we are constantly working, constantly creating. And when we stare idly out the window, especially when we stare idly out the window, we are hard at work.

The choice that we have made is therefore a life without leisure, but a balanced life nevertheless. We derive satisfaction from our daily activities, from our musical vocation. Instead of working in order to have a fulfilled life, our work creates a fulfilled life. But we should never mistake the satisfaction derived from our job for that of a leisure activity. When we rest, our art suffers. When we consider our musical activities recreation, we devalue our creations.

Yes, we are extraordinarily fortunate to be able to engage in creative acts, and many of us do so without any hope of monetary gain deriving from these labors. Yes, I would still attend concerts even if I weren’t a composer. Indeed, the love of music is the reason why I cheerfully confront the extraordinary difficulties encountered while pursuing this career. For those of us on this road, music remains a deeply adored pursuit while also being an all-consuming labor. Leisure time doesn’t exist, because art can never be perfect and, for me, failed attempts at reaching towards the ideal music that I vaguely perceive at the horizon of my capabilities require my complete and constant commitment. And I wouldn’t change my chosen path for all the money in the world.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Composers at Work

  1. speakingmusic

    David –

    I really resonated with your article. As a composer who works a job to pay the bills, I find composing is anything but work. Quite the opposite, it is my preferred form of relaxation –even when working on a project for money.

    I posted my own length response on my blog Interchanging Idioms:

    Composition isn’t work in the traditional sense. But that doesn’t mean what we compose has little or no value, quite the opposite…

  2. Chris Becker

    Excellent. Well said.

    I’ll only add that I find it important to take breaks – watch football, cook, spend time with the cat – in part because that is when one is refilling the well of inspiration. There’s something that goes on with the subconscious when you put the muse on “silent” and instead spend time in a garden or cleaning the bathroom.

    Ideally, every activity kind of feeds the other, even the “leisurely” activities.


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