The Composer As

The Composer As

This week I want to check in on an issue I grazed, as it were, with a haphazard spray of speculative birdshot last week: What does a composer have to be in the 21st century? I don’t mean to open a can of aesthetic worms but rather to address the purely practical roles that a self-identifying composer seems to have to assume in order to cultivate a career. As someone who will soon be entering (or attempting to enter) the field as a professional, these are simply my incidental, non-exhaustive impressions of it—but if my assessment is at all on the money, my fellow grad students and I have a lot of work to do in the next couple of years.

A composer is expected to be a craftsperson, which is to say that he or she has to write pieces that are generally acknowledged to be well-made. If his or her manner of composing demands a kung fu grip on species counterpoint or LISP programming, so be it, but I’m referring chiefly to the capability to shape an experience, a skill that supposedly comes only with practice and experience. This is really hard.

Complementary to his or her craft, a composer is expected to be poetic, in the sense that he or she not only delivers the presentational goods, so to speak, of the piece at hand but also exercises his or her aesthetic sensibility in a thoughtful, meaningful, and responsible fashion. This is the kind of thing composers are talking about, I think, when they say (as Takemitsu, for one, did) that they’ve learned much more about writing music from life experiences that are totally unrelated to music per se than from their formal training.

In part because their jobs often obligate them to teach music theory, composers are typically expected to be theorists, even when the theory with which they’re acquainted is completely inapplicable to their compositional processes. There are, of course, specialized theorists, many of whom write about theory much more clearly and insightfully than their composer counterparts, but their work doesn’t excuse composers from having to know which Roman numerals to write under the Chopin prelude.

And let’s not overlook the musicologists, whose act composers have been horning in on for years. Nobody expects musicologists to write pieces and have them performed, but composers are routinely asked to speak about the music of other composers—sometimes ones they don’t know personally, and sometimes even dead ones, heaven forbid. They are expected to have a broad and deep pool of knowledge, a lucid historical perspective, and a suitcase of well-informed opinions on hundreds of years of music from all over the world.

Speaking of historical perspective, a rigorous grasp of music technology seems to be an increasingly essential trait in the composer and one for which we have few precedents (although I suppose Bach’s interest in organ building and testing qualifies). I get the feeling that familiarity with computer and electroacoustic music techniques is, like a capacity for theory, de rigeur even when the composer declines to use the particular means in the writing of his or her music.

As a practical matter, composers have to be their own publicists as well, tirelessly promoting their work, applying for grants, submitting pieces to competitions, and developing an international network of connections. This will definitely wear one down; I personally would rather delegate the position to someone else, but I’m afraid there’s no way around it.

Again, these are only my observations. And I’m sure I left something out—please speak up if another facet of our cubic-zirconian job description strikes you. Your comments will help my colleagues and me prepare ourselves to enter the fray.

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2 thoughts on “The Composer As

  1. davidcoll

    This is definitely the kind of language we hear all too often in grad school- and i think that so long as one is well-informed and aware of the powers that be, then that may be enough.
    I keep on hoping that the more time I try to spend composing, understanding ALL my habits and ALL my choices, i’ll stumble into a path that will naturally lead me to performers and composers that i’ll get along with- call them “contacts”, but its a friendlier thing, hopefully-
    just want to stress that the root of all those extra-compositional activities begins on the page..or the computer screen i suppose..

    this too idealized?…

  2. Colin Holter

    Good point. I have to remind myself periodically that the educational growth required to be reasonably successful (in the career sense) and that required to actually be a good composer are sort of tangential to one another.

    Ideally, I think it’s a feedback loop of sorts – the process of refining my musical intuition has widened my field of vision when it comes to all those other things, which in turn have stimulated my musical curiosity and compositional instinct.


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