Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry

Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry

Jed Distler multitasking
Photo by Randy Nordschow

The great lyricist Johnny Mercer liked to tell the story of how his wife Ginger struck up a conversation with a stranger. Asked what her husband did, Ginger replied that he wrote songs. The stranger replied, “Yes, but what does he do for a living?”

Many composers, in fact, make handsome livings solely from writing music. Others, like me, do not, or I should say, not yet. After all, I subscribe to Virgil Thomson’s succinct definition of composition as “what composers do.”

Still, the non-composing things composers do often generate more buzz. For example, I recently turned pages for my old friend and former composition teacher Andrew Thomas during a rehearsal for one of his works. Andy introduced me to the ensemble’s student musicians, saying I was a composer and pianist. Blank stares. He mentioned that I wrote CD reviews for Gramophone. Suddenly the students got interested. They hounded me with questions. Do you choose what you review? How do you become a critic? I’ve got a friend with a CD out, my teacher has a new CD, and can you review my CD? Gimme, gimme, gimme.

How does one handle this situation? I shrugged off the questions by saying it’s the editor’s decision what discs to review, not mine. That isn’t always true, but at least I got out of the conversation gracefully. Later on, I realized that I lost an opportunity for a horse trade. “Sure, kid. I’ll review your CD. And when will you play my woodwind quintet?”

But that never happens. For starters, as a reviewer, I almost always decline to write about contemporary music. Because I present, perform, and compose new music, I feel it would be a conflict of interest if I wrote about my peers. Other composer/critics from Robert Schumann and Hugo Wolf up through Virgil Thomson and Kyle Gann don’t see it that way, but I hold to my opinion. On the rare occasions I do write about a contemporary composer or performer, it’s usually someone I know personally, and I make my bias painfully clear from the get go. So I stick to, say, Alfred Brendel’s Mozart or Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven. But who knows, maybe Barenboim will someday conduct my music and, after the first rehearsal, ask me just what I meant by his “elephantine tempi” for the Goldberg Variations!

For many composers, the connections between the composing side and the non-composing side are often biographical details left unsaid. If a stranger at a party asks what I do, I simply say that I write music and I play the piano. But I can probably equally be pegged as an established new music pianist, a cabaret accompanist, a society bandleader, a lecturer on dead pianists, a Broadway pit band principal keyboard player, a teacher, an off-Broadway music director, arts panel judge, the world’s most accurate Art Tatum and Bill Evans transcriber, a pop arranger specializing in airline boarding videos, a record reviewer, a ballet pianist, a program note writer, a church musician, a radio personality, and a concert producer under the auspices of ComposersCollabrative, inc., the organization I founded with my wife Celia Cooke in 1987, for whom I serve as Artistic Director. Which of the above is the real me? They all are.

To disparage a life not spent entirely writing music, people like to point to Charles Ives composing at night and selling insurance by day until a nervous breakdown prematurely ended his double life. Ives, for many reasons, was an extreme case. But many composers who’ve had to hold down “day jobs” have made the best of both worlds. By working in music in another ways besides composing, many of our most important composers have changed the history of music in more ways than one. And the influences stemming from such a double life have served both muses.

Who better to be in charge of an arts organization or a conservatory than a composer? Think William Schuman at Lincoln Center, Peter Mennin at Juilliard or, even better, Howard Hanson at the Eastman School who established that any composer studying there was guaranteed a performance of their music by the orchestra. Who has a better ear to make recordings than a composer? Think Goodard Lieberson, who ran Columbia Masterworks for years, or producers like David Behrman and Richard Einhorn. Or, more recently, John Zorn’s label Tzadik. Who better to make the collections between all the various camps within the music industry than a composer? Think John Duffy who founded Meet the Composer and all the successful composer residencies that organization has engendered for almost 30 years. But, oops, I’m breaking my rule about not writing about new music…

As it happens, I’ve been inventing music from day one. At three or four years old, before I even learned to read notes, I was fascinated by notation, and made circular sketches on blank music paper. It was infinitely easier and more fun to improvise than to sit and practice written music for my weekly piano lessons. Another childhood fascination that persists into my late middle age are large musical projects, in the form of long pieces, cyclical works, festivals, and multi-record sets. I went nuts over Bob Dylan’s increasingly longer and longer songs (to this day I can sing all the verses of Desolation Row from memory!). The more minutes and seconds the Grateful Dead jammed on Dark Star, or John Coltrane improvised on My Favorite Things, the more I needed to hear it. When I caught pneumonia and had to miss two weeks of fourth grade, my parents bought me the Solti Ring to while away my bedridden hours. That led to a mercifully brief yet fondly remembered obsession with the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and I’m ashamed to admit that I audio taped the entire 1968 event on my trusty Wollensak Reel-To-Reel deck (the tape no longer exists, in case you’re wondering). Similar obsessions provided the impetus for my journalism career. I began writing reviews in 1992, largely because I couldn’t afford all those tempting box set reissues flooding the market. Since reviewers usually got free discs and I had pretty good writing skills, I thought I’d give it a try. Amazingly enough, every magazine that I approached took me on, except for the two lowest paying American record review journals.

How do all these activities influence my composing? I can’t say that being CCi’s Artistic Director influences the kind of music I write. Yet the position decisively shaped how I disseminate my music. When CCi commissions new works for the Non Sequitur Festival, we expect that the composer and his or her collaborative partner will honor the deadlines and conditions they agree to when they accept our invitation. Our ground rules reinforce the fact that I need to be as conscientious as possible when preparing scores and parts. Should I not be able to honor a deadline, I make every effort to renegotiate. Sometimes I’m invited to sit on panels for grants. When we sift through the proposals, I find I’m always biased towards clean, well-organized presentations and high quality, clearly marked audio. I used to be rather lax with my own proposals and figured that intelligent listeners could discern quality music making despite substandard engineering. Wrong-o!

And being a performer unquestionably influences how I compose. The more I collaborate with other musicians, the more I take the physicality of their instruments into account, or the possibilities and limitations of the human voice. I’ve learned how to trust really good, devoted musicians and let them muddle through a first rehearsal without my comments. Later on, I can make suggestions. In turn, musicians come up with suggestions that bring me closer to what I had in mind.

Listening to music and studying scores crucially factor into a composer’s formative years. Before I became a professional record reviewer, I used to raid the Lincoln Center Library and spend countless hours pouring over unfamiliar repertoire. I became fascinated with comparing different performances of the same work. And, most importantly, I played through a lot of piano duet arrangements of chamber, orchestral, and operatic repertoire. This not only developed my sight-reading, but also allowed me to experience the music actively from the inside, as opposed to passive (however attentive) listening. As a reviewer, of course, I get paid to listen and compare, and to continue discovering repertoire and performers I didn’t know before. When it comes to music making, excellence simply abounds. I also notice more composers and performers taking the record industry into their own hands, forming their own labels, and cultivating their own followings. That’s the way it should be: from Harry Partch to Philip Glass, from the Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe label to Michael Torke’s newly launched Ecstatic Music. I don’t have my own record label, but I circulate my live performances among tape and CDR traders via the Internet. There’s a huge network of music lovers who trade live concert recordings via the Internet, including myself, and it’s a great way to spread your music and create community with no money changing hands. Free publicity, in other words.

How, then, do I prioritize composing within my multi-faceted, freelance lifestyle? How do I schedule composing time without making it feel like I’m merely “fitting it in,” or writing yet another piece “on the fly”? While I engage in every non-composing project I do with the utmost conviction, I must always make every effort not to let that crazy composer named Distler out of my sight for one second.

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