Over the course of my first three essays this month, I’ve offered my perspective on our new music enterprise during a tumultuous period that has pushed me to ask some pretty fundamental questions. How do we keep developing our work in the face of challenging circumstances? What kind of career options can we hope to have upon reaching mid-career? And what future is there for a composer whose drive for independence keeps his or her work outside the mainstream, institutional systems of support? It certainly is a puzzle, and this process of writing and sharing has helped me start putting some of my pieces together. In this fourth and final essay, I will try to sketch out some possible paths for continuing, and even renewing, a rewarding artistic practice for this next phase of life.
A couple of weeks ago I asked a friend, who is a jazz critic, for some advice. I was considering taking on a substantial writing project that paid almost nothing and seemed only tangentially related to the rest of my musical life. I had in fact pitched this project, but I had my doubts: Why would I want to spend hours writing a lengthy piece about a kind of music I am not directly involved with, for little to no compensation? What would I stand to gain? His response was illuminating, and I think it speaks to the conditions under which many of us, myself included, continue to labor as composers of new music. Here was the jazz critic’s response: “We are in a battle! Music is under threat, and any opportunity we have to fight back, to promote the good stuff that’s happening, is an opportunity well worth pursuing.”
Suffice it to say that I accepted the assignment, just as I continue to accept the self-assigned task of composing my own “new music” through good times and bad. With or without a proper career or support system, we must go on. The health of our culture depends on it. Among the many useful items of insight and advice to be found in Lou Harrison’s Music Primer, which the composer wrote in 1970 is this: “As one American foundation report expressed the matter, the composer himself subsidizes the art of music. It is only common sense then for the composer to find out for himself exactly how much he can afford.” Like it or not, for many of us this observation is as true today as it was in 1970. And it would seem that, given the increasing downward mobility of the majority of our population, since at least 1970, we are able to afford less and less. What can we do?
While we can’t bring back the cheap rent, abundant loft spaces, and free time that helped us to form our own independent ensembles, we do have the internet. One of the most compelling and timely music projects to have crossed my path in recent years is composer Eve Beglarian’s A Book of Days. Though she began the project in 2001 as a kind of practice through creating a piece for each day of the year, over the last two years she has been transmitting the diverse works in this collection via email and the web to friends and subscribers. Some of the works are short, some are long. Some are electronic, others are acoustic, and some include video and imagery. While her style and approach may not appeal to everyone, the format and transmission of her work in this way seems to me an excellent, and economical, example of effectively using the tools of our time to both shape a compositional practice and transmit it to an audience. There are many other creative and compelling uses of the internet that can help serve new music, and this must continue to be a point of focus.
Another recent project that suggests an alternative model is Craig Shepard’s On Foot. Upon moving to New York and quickly confronting the twin obstacles of lack of workspace and lack of free time, the composer came up with a novel solution. Recognizing that he spent a good deal of time every day commuting to and from work, he resolved to walk to and from work each day, thereby creating three hours of usable creative time to compose. It worked, and this routine eventually grew into a practice that formed the basis of the larger project known as On Foot that included outdoor public performances, lectures and multimedia presentations, and the publication of a book and CD. In this way, Craig responded to his circumstances and found a productive way to continue his work, despite the obstacles.
What these two examples suggest above all, is that we have it within us to adapt and invent in miraculous ways. This doesn’t mean we can’t continue to write and present according to traditional models. In fact we probably have more accomplished performers to potentially work with today than ever before. But increasingly, the expense and initiative of a major composition falls directly to the composer, who must figure out “exactly how much he can afford.” Here again we have the internet to help, with all of the fundraising tools it offers. While you didn’t learn this in music school, you can learn to be your own fundraiser, and succeed. You should try, and you should support others who use these tools. I know in the beginning of this new era I found it difficult to accept that all my friends wanted my money to help make their concert happen. But gradually I have come to accept that I must help, however I can. We are in a battle and we need to support one other more than ever. Next time you get a Kickstarter email from a colleague, pitch in a few bucks. It might make all the difference, and with luck, that support will return to you when you need it.
In sum, invent! Music is who we are, and we must keep fighting for our right to create it. For my own part, I am beginning to find my way towards a new musical practice that I hope will sustain me into middle age. It’s a mix of new technologies and old ways, and is the product of a lot of listening and writing and talking about music. It’s not exactly what I imagined when I was a young composition student, and it may not be what you would call a career, but it’s my music and gives my life meaning, and right now, I can afford it.