Boarded up windows on an abandoned building.
Going it Alone

Going it Alone

In my essay last week, the first in a four-part series, I discussed what it means to be a “mid-career” composer in today’s musical landscape. This week I am going to explore the world of “unaffiliated” composers. By unaffiliated, I mean composers who have no particular ties or responsibilities to academia or other cultural institutions that strongly shape musical careers. New music composers have always been a tiny minority within the larger society, but merely a generation ago, the unaffiliated or the “freelance” composer was a more common phenomenon in new music. With a more reasonable cost of living in culturally active cities such as New York City or San Francisco, composers could more easily build their lives around the pursuit of their craft, while earning a modest living doing a part-time side job. Just ask Philip Glass who, reflecting back on his early career in the late ’60s and early ’70s during a 2012 Village Voice interview, said, “You could work three days a week loading a truck or driving a cab, and you’d have enough money to live off of, but that’s not true anymore.”  A look at musical life in the cities of today reveals a considerably different picture. It’s not only the rising cost of living that’s eroding our musical communities, but also the continually diminishing financial support of the arts and the increasing commercialization of all facets of cultural practice.

Much of the now legendary American new music of the previous era was largely the work of unaffiliated freelancers.

Much of the now legendary American new music of the previous era was largely the work of unaffiliated freelancers. Going back even further, one of our culture’s greatest new music traditions is that of the so-called “American Maverick”—those composers whose non-conformist temperaments lead them to shun mainstream and academic pursuits in favor of rugged individualism and often self-imposed exile. Think Conlon Nancarrow hiding away in Mexico City, or Harry Partch living the life of the wandering hobo, or Lou Harrison camped out in the coastal forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. As Harrison himself observed in a 1945 essay titled “Ruggles, Ives, Varèse,” “American music, like so much other American art, is almost completely the product of amateurs. Its finest thinking and finest writing practitioners have for a long time been amateurs. And it is no disgrace to a country that its expression should arise out of a need of the private citizen.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, the fact remains that new music and the arts overall have become increasingly professionalized in America, to the point where it has become nearly unthinkable that a young composer might forego graduate studies and an eventual Ph.D. and simply go it alone. This is not to disparage academic music or film and theater composers. The problem is that professionalization is becoming the only game in town.

Given where we are today, what options actually are there for a composer with a more independent, unaffiliated profile? Here in New York City, though it is increasingly hard to locate, we do still have some vestiges of an independent new music syndicate. Small arts organizations that host new music still exist, but with ever-diminishing budgets and programming. Beyond that, an informal ecosystem of venues and spaces nurture some vibrant musical activity, though again, without meaningful resources. Nonetheless, a culture persists. But it’s a decidedly different culture than the one of previous generations. Again, here is Philip Glass:

It was very common to find a loft in the East Village . . . empty synagogues and that type of thing…You could find a loft for $150, $200 a month. Now, that’s impossible.

It was this type of environment—one with ample space that was relatively inexpensive to either own, lease, or simply book time in—that allowed Glass and others to form entire ensembles, with an extensive original repertoire, and to rehearse, weekly! Today this is mostly impossible, and thus an entire musical model—a model which incidentally, went on to largely define the new music landscape of the past fifty years—has essentially become extinct. Today’s underground landscape favors simple setups, usually solo, and lots of improvisation. Who has time and space to practice and develop actual compositions?

I’m not advocating here for a broad return to minimalist chamber ensembles in downtown lofts, but some flexibility in our capitalist, consumerist, straitjacketed landscape would surely lead to more musical experimentation and innovation, and that would be good for our musical culture.

Independent composers still form collectives, write new works, and organize concerts.

And yet we persist. Independent composers still form collectives, write new works, and organize concerts. Others delve more deeply into computers and electronic music to satisfy their artistic impulses, avoiding the more difficult challenge of finding a way to get an ensemble work or a string quartet actually performed. Still others give up composing entirely, in favor of the aforementioned freeform underground improv model. For my part, I’ve been recently involved in some of each, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Having reached mid-career, as I wrote in my essay last week, and feeling that many of my long-term compositional projects have run their course, I am desperately seeking a new and productive working model that would allow me to continue to grow as a composer and to realize some of the many latent ideas I carry within me. I’m determined to find it, as the “unaffiliated” composer that I continue to be, but I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t feeling dispirited.

Next week I will try to explain why, given all the difficulties, anyone would continue to pursue the path of composing a type of music that is so little heard and even less understood outside of a small circle of friends and colleagues. It’s a question we’ve certainly asked ourselves many times over, possibly even on a daily basis, but it can become an even more poignant question upon reaching mid-career.

Dan Joseph is a composer, performer, writer and curator based in New York City. For the past fifteen years, the hammer dulcimer has been the primary vehicle for his music and he is active as a performer with his own chamber ensemble, The Dan Joseph Ensemble, as well as in various improvisational collaborations and as a soloist. He produces the monthly music and sound series Musical Ecologies in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and is a contributing writer to The Brooklyn Rail, Musicworks Magazine and In 2017, the venerable New York... Read more »

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.

10 thoughts on “Going it Alone

  1. Michael Patterson

    Composing new music and creating in a supportive or affordable culture. Being able to pay the rent and bills and continue to work outside of academia.
    I think that NY today ,as a vital and affordable cultural center is not really a reality.
    Even if you are adjunct the number of hours required to make any money that pays the rent offsets the free time it buys.

    So what to do.
    If you’re in NY obviously it’s the
    past evolutionary history and the significant “role” the city played in the creative arts ?
    that landed you here.
    It’s true that there is a NY vibe that can inspire and prod the creative mind , and probably give one something not available in other cities. But I think that the
    interesting and sustaining ,
    nurturing, quality that used to exist here has now become a kind of desperation …rather what exists is a perpetual state of anxiety. …desperation to pay the rent – pay bills – get the next gig …
    extremely exhausting. What is the solution ?
    Culture move towards the middle …so finding
    a city where you can work , make
    enough to sustain yourself and be creative is on my radar.

    Ciao for

    Michael Patterson

  2. Samson Y Hiss

    “…simple setups, usually solo and lots of improvisation.” Wait. Were you at my last show on the corner of Market and 6th in SF? I was on the unicycle. You? Solutions beyond your description elude me, so I busk on, squirrel away nickels and eat Safeway sushi. I’ll keep reading.

  3. Gerald Brennan

    I look forward to your future installments, but two things come quickly to mind. (They are generalizations, please keep in mind.):
    * The academy is responsible for the near-death of contemporary art music, especially of the orchestral species. A refuge of hacks, they write music only for one another, while pretending they enjoy the transaction. (This greases the path to be integrated into the power structure. And like all power structures, ingratiation is the name of the game.) Most of the “best” schools have alliances with mid- and top-tier orchestras who play the works of the academics. The audiences have usually hated the results of this arrangement, but who cares? It’s a lot like an assembly line. The Arts Industry, like laws and sausages, ought not to be scrutinized by the squeamish.
    * These are bad times for humanity, spiritually speaking, but this offers much grist for the mill of the real artist. In my experience, I would reckon the number of actual artists to be about 1% of the total who claim the title. For all the poseurs with money problems, I would advise you get a job and stop adding noise to the culture. The 1% who are actual artists know that being an artist is the pinnacle of the blessing/curse situation. They *have no choice*; they have to create or die. These might be the worst times in history to be an actual artist and expect to make living at it. They do what they can to pay the bills and preserve their integrity. Most understand that the gifts they have make up for their dire conditions and they would not trade their artist soul for the world.

  4. Dan Joseph Post author

    I wish I had been there to hear you improvise on a unicycle! The simple, solo improv has its place, but what other “solutions” do you aspire to?

  5. Jon Corelis

    ” The academy is responsible for the near-death of contemporary … music,… A refuge of hacks, they write music only for one another, while pretending they enjoy the transaction. ”

    Substitute “poetry” for “music” and it’s equally true.

  6. John Borstlap

    One of the problems of contemporary music – both in America and in Europe – is that postwar avantgarde movements have led to a split-up of contemporary music from the central performance culture. Where there are no aesthetic and spiritual links with this culture, new music finds itself in a different territory. The idea that being contemporary means embracing a certain conventional set of aesthetic values, to conform to modernity outside music, is misunderstanding both music as an art form and modernity, if you realize that modernity is being interpreted differently all the time (see: art history). And then, academia is not an insufficient but the worst environment for writing music if in that environment those values, mostly dating from half a century ago, are established norms. The only way to get new music back into an organic context with performers and audiences, is reviving the aesthetics which keep the central performance culture running, and a reform of music education in this respect.

  7. Samson Y Hiss

    Aspired solutions? I rented a theatre for a circus music show I composed, co-directed and produced. People came and screamed, but I left with a hole in my hat. Now I start anew. Composing, collaborating and peddling (pedaling) my next show. Aspired solution? Exit the building with my shirt. Do I apply for grants? Who would grant me to scare people’s pants off? Do I Patreon? Do I have the patrons? Do I get sponsors? If the Grand National Rodeo can get sponsors, why can’t I? Do I play musical instruments on my unicycle riding in circles until a tornado picks me up and spins me into every home with a pair of bunny ear? Yes. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll make the news. Aspired solution? All options are in the ring.

  8. Daryl Schulman

    Thank you Gerald Brennan for pointing out what so many of us are afraid to admit out loud, that the “best” schools have alliances with mid- and top-tier orchestras who play the works of the academics which prevent anyone who didn’t go to the one of the Ivies from ever getting anything considered. They have such a stranglehold on the market and will crush anyone with aspirations for getting into it lest it take away from one of their chosen few. It is sadly amusing when you read yet another graduate from these schools, mostly carbon copies of each other, say “I’m honored to be chosen.” Chosen? It was all but assured the moment they walked into the building. The market is rigged and the rest of us simply have no access to it. The “alliance” Mr. Brennan writes about is a system of nepotism that is killing off opportunity for the rest of us who are trying to truly “go it alone.”

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