Knowing When to Stop, or Not

Knowing When to Stop, or Not

During an unsolicited phone call from my undergrad alma mater, the enthusiastic voice on the line asked me if I was still involved with the music industry. My affirmative answer triggered a sigh of relief from the caller—my guess was that he is a music student himself on some sort of work-trade scholarship—who informed me that this is the point at which most graduates confess to having some crappy McJob or a position totally unrelated to the music business. As you might have guessed, the call segued quickly from checking current contact information to asking for donations for the school’s scholarship programs. After hanging up, I began to question my level of involvement in music, and how different I thought my life would be when I entered school—I can’t believe what I’m about to type—twenty years ago.

When this 18-year-old entered a music composition program, he thought scoring films was the thing for him. Maybe it would bring with it a nice home in Santa Monica or Silver Lake, a driver to take me to the studio, nothing excessively fancy. Well, none of that happened. Unfortunately, while my music education expanded my horizons exponentially, I was somehow taught the notion that the really great music, the stuff that is eventually absorbed into the canon, certainly isn’t tethered to cinema. Film music is somehow lesser-than. Set on writing great music, I dropped my ambitions to underscore films. Instead of film directors, I collaborated with installation artists—the folks tinkering with “real” art (read: noncommercial).

As I followed whatever early opportunities a composer gets, I never envisioned a steady thing that one would actually call a career, per se. Composers in their twenties usually have the wherewithal to figure out that very few will rise to a level of success—success of the kind that would afford them that house and that driver—by writing music alone. We all know the realities of mortgages and putting food on the table prevents a complete fulfillment of our desires to create sounds and play around in the concert hall. And yet we don’t stop.

I’ve already entered the eclipsed territory where composers over 35 years of age go to hibernate for a few decades. The classical music machine is predominately interested in the youngins and the octogenarians, which affords us in the middle some time to hone our craft or experiment out of the spotlight, or maybe come to our senses and take the LSAT. At any rate, we can take some time to reflect and shed our now-antiquated points of view, and realize, for instance, how artful commercial music can really be. If anyone here in the dead zone has any suggestion on how to kill the time, please add your thoughts. Hey alumni association: maybe I’ll kick my next royalty check your way. (Trust me, don’t get too excited.)

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13 thoughts on “Knowing When to Stop, or Not

  1. philmusic

    Randy, for any artist the “trick” is simply to remain.

    “..If anyone here in the dead zone has any suggestion on how to kill the time, please add your thoughts..”

    Not to worry. Usually its the other way around.


    Phil Fried

  2. bvlasak

    Interesting …
    For me, I never even imagined that I would have a work performed, let alone get paid to do it. I’ve always been enamored with the starving, unperformed, under-appreciated artist ideal, probably because that’s where I come from, quite literally. Nonetheless, it amuses me to know that so many others experience the same type of “’t.what.i.planned.for” moment that we often encounter after reflecting upon our lives. :-)

  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    If being between 35 and 80 is the dead zone, then at 59, I’ve been walking dead for a few years.

    Heck, it wasn’t until I was 35 that anyone but my own ensembles played my music.

    It’s a long walk from the young genre-bendre performing in New York to the midlife composer with a list of compositions larger than the dollars in his bank account.

    Folks make choices, right time wrong time right place wrong place, get lucky or not. I never got lucky. I just kept working — 45 years now — and wouldn’t trade any of it except maybe for not staking a stronger claim to my own breakthroughs. But who knew?

    I still don’t.


  4. William Osborne

    I’m not so sure there is any sort of universal tendency to neglect composers in middle age. Most of the composers dominating new music are middle-aged. The only elderly composer being widely celebrated these days is Elliot Carter, but he has always been popular. Others, such as Miltion Babbit, Gunther Schuler, Donald Martino, and David Del Tredici who were dominant in middle age are now largely ignored.

    Carter’s support also has a lot to do with James Levine and his position as GMD of the BSO. Levine has consistently rejected postmodern composers in favor of the old Northeastern establishment’s modernists, and Carter was always their head honcho.

    I think education and versatility also play a considerable role in how well composers can progress and continue to develop into middle age. The chances of growth are increased if students are given thorough and wide-ranging technical training that can allow them to continuing exploring a large spectrum of musical ideas throughout their lives.

    In this sense, you might consider your Mills background. The school focuses strongly on electronic music and improvisation (it is world class in both areas,) but with less emphasis on more traditional techniques. The chances of growth are thus limited, because some students might later find they are less interested in electronics and improv, but do not have the background to easily explore to other styles and genres.

    You never know how an artist’s interests will evolve and develop, so it is important that schools give students a very wide educational background that will provide them with resources for the rest of their lives regardless of how they develop.

    Geography can also play a role. Your Mills background would probably find much more support even in a city like Berlin, which has a very active West Coast-styled scene, than in NYC, which is a bit stodgy in that area. In short, a Bay Area composer might continue to thrive in the Bay Area, but gradually dry up in a city that has a fairly different aesthetic atmosphere. The support network of like-minded people is just not there in some cities.

    Seen from another perspective, this is yet another example of why America needs more regionalism in its cultural life. We have such a richness of composers, but so many are ignored because they are not covered by the Northeastern media and cultural establishment whose perspectives are often quite parochial. We need a wealthy donor to print up 10,000 FNY buttons (if you remember what that means) and distribute them around the country’s new music communities.

    William Osborne


    Keep writing and your insecurity and envy will diminish, and your work will grow.
    – bpNichol

  6. teresa

    A life in music should be rich and diverse.
    The fact that all of us were trained to believe that we should only do one thing and be paid for that (compose, play piano, play violin, etc.) is (hopefully) a convention of the past.

    Conservatories and music schools need to train students to have a *complete* life in music, as there are not that many principle (insert your instrument here) jobs available each year, versus the applicants (and even worse for composers). I think people need to depart from the idea that they are not successful unless they are making 100% of their paycheck from their passion. I wish life were that easy….

    Living in the Bay area, I see many, many, unhappy people working in the tech industry (for which they were trained) but often not pursuing their passion. Unfortunately, society places a monetary value on our contribution to the community. Musicians and artists have always been on the low end of that deal.

    Still…. I do wish I was a Google millionaire. It would make learning all those tough scores, that much easier ; )


  7. jigsawmusic

    Randy, don’t you dare consider taking an LSAT, GMAT, or MCAT for even one second, or I will have to catch the train up there and make you an integral part of a prepared piano piece. ;-)

    Indeed, you could drum up a whole big load of music right now, so that when you reach your 80’s there will be lots to choose from!

  8. Chris Becker

    At 39, I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my (relatively) short life as a composer. But then again, I’m not really a part of the “classical music” world…although I’ve just been asked to compose a piece for classical guitar. Hmm.

    This past weekend I did a show with an improvising ensemble at a gallery called Live With Animals. Our trumpet player, cornet player, and guest guitarist (who I studied with back in the conservatory – so he’s known me since I was 18! Ahhh!!!!) are all at least 10 years ahead of myself, our guest bassist (the youngest there I think…) and guitarist. We did two nights of improvising to contemporary silent films for a crowd that included former members of the Swans, visual artists connected to the gallery, sons and daughters of some members of the ensemble, as well as recent graduates of the school where our guest guitarist teaches. No young kids though, as some of the films were kind of…er…adult.*

    My age seems to be affording me the opportunity to collaborate in a very natural and fluid way with artists who are both younger and older than myself. I think you see this in avant-garde jazz, maybe less so in the world in “indie-rock.” I can’t comment with confidence about the “classical” world – but I can say that your 30’s are a great time for letting go of hang ups and expanding your range of creative experiences. You might think that this is what happens in your 20’s but – and maybe I’m a late bloomer – in my experience your world gets richer as you get older.

    Happy to check back in in another 10 years to (re) confirm (God willing).

    *Adult=Naked People!

  9. macroboy

    I didn’t see this as envy or jealousy so much as self-reflection.

    At 36 as a composer I am in a good spot but I don’t make a living at it. I’m not sure I see that as possible (for me). I make my living teaching music at a university and that seems cool enough…..although a little beauracratic at times. I also get hit with the “what am I doing with my life.?” insecurities once in a while.

    I’ve taken the GMAT and am pursuing an MBA and I still compose.

    I play many “gallery” shows like the one described above. I hope the member of the Sawns was Jarboe and that she was “adult” (I think you know what I am saying).

  10. Chris Becker

    Uh…she wasn’t there. I guess your a fan? She’s another example of an uncompromising artist going strong without hang ups regarding age and the sort of score keeping mentality Randy describes.

    Didn’t mean to sound like a name dropper :) I just wanted to make it clear the audience wasn’t yr typical demographic…it was a real mix which I love.


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