The Composer’s Work

The Composer’s Work

I keep a New Yorker cartoon on the wall next to my desk: one Roman says to another, “I started out here on drums years ago, and I never dreamed I’d wind up in a policymaking position.” It is my reminder of the surprising turns that a life in music has afforded me. Without recounting them all, let’s just say I’ve worn literally dozens of hats while earning a living in music, and that of the thousands of people in the field who I’ve crossed paths with, only some of them would know me as a composer first. There are orchestra musicians who see me stepping onto a podium and aren’t sure if I’m the same guy who was setting up their chairs and stands seventeen years ago. Of course, music lends itself to apprenticing and long curves of deep learning and, for composers, some of the non-composing options in our field can deeply inform the music we write. Playing in orchestras and learning scores to conduct them have been central to my education as a composer.

John Kennedy
Daguerreotype by Robert Shlaer

It’s another and longer discussion, but for me, being a composer is one part of first being a musician. I know I’m not alone. In fact, it’s actually a strange and somewhat radical idea that a composer wouldn’t have other occupational activities besides writing music. Even those few who might legitimately identify themselves as a “composer” to the IRS have to interface with the field and the world in many ways as part of their profession. It’s worth remembering that a composer as wildly successful as Stravinsky had recurring financial struggles and turned to conducting as a chief source of income. Read the life story of any composer, and you will almost always find creative solutions to earning a living.

It’s not news that composers have to do this. But it does raise interesting questions about the influence and proactive role we might collectively play in the field through our other ways of working. If every composer who reads this were to chime in and tell us what other ways they work in the music world, we would soon begin to see an incredible web of interconnectivity and small degrees of separation. Imagine if in all of these situations, we asked the question of how we might advocate on behalf of new music and the work of other composers—if we were to build links to new music for people and institutions that haven’t made it a priority, and help them see this as critical to the growth and literacy of their constituencies.

I believe our potential influence and reach is quite significant because composers are at work everywhere in our field in many different guises. Reading the interview with John Duffy, we are reminded that the legacy of composers playing leadership roles in American musical culture is tremendous. If composers hadn’t left their studios and taken on other kinds of musical jobs and challenges, our music history would be quite different. So doing other kinds of work in the field is not a question of curiosity about how we support ourselves, but is a question of action and possibility about how we support music. Sometimes it may be challenging to wear the identity of a composer in situations where we are doing other work, but we should remember Mr. Duffy’s idea and endeavor to give others the opportunity to meet the composer.

How have other kinds of work, in or out of music, influenced your composing? And what kind of techniques can we use in our work that assist the climate for and reach of new music?

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