The other night after closing shop I ran over to my favorite D.C. bookstore to attend a reading by Alex Ross of his new book Listen to This. The store was filled with an enthusiastic crowd that listened attentively and then bubbled with questions regarding music education, engaging audiences, and thoughts on file sharing, among other topics. This gathering felt completely different from the last Ross reading I attended three years ago in Baltimore to usher in The Rest Is Noise—that event was packed with music students and faculty from the Peabody Institute. This time, when Alex spoke briefly about the lives of living, breathing composers, it seemed, based on the somewhat blank stares of the crowd, that he could just as well have been talking about aliens. And for a minute I really did feel like an extraterrestrial, trying to fit into an earthly existence.
Despite speculation that aliens are among us, this is probably not an unusual way for a composer to feel in Washington, D.C., or St. Louis, Missouri, or Big Fork, Montana, or in many locations on planet earth. One reason for this is, as Chris Theofanidis recalls in a story about meeting Otto Luening, is that the reality for composers is that achieving a point of relative financial and/or life stability involves a long haul. Sometimes it’s hard to watch friends and family find that much earlier—they buy houses, have children, get steady jobs with health insurance! The first twenty years or so can be difficult, says Luening, and plenty of talented people get fed up and choose some other more predictable profession. As a composer nearing that twenty-year mark I can say that this is absolutely true, and also that it does get better. The sheer act of sticking it out and being tenacious can yield positive results. Of course, this depends on what “things getting better” looks like—for some, it means the trappings associated with big commissions, signing on with a big publisher, and other accolades, and for others it might mean that they are able to hire a copyist, pay comfortably for recording studio time, or find an assistant to help manage increasing score orders. Success can mean a lot of different things.
As we talked for a moment while he signed a book, Alex asked if I thought the internet really has been helpful to composers, and the answer is a resounding “Yes!” It would be incredibly difficult to continue on this path without the ability to disseminate music via the internet, to connect with ensembles and musicians outside of one’s immediate geographic area, and to simply let people know what is going on. Hats off to Otto Luening and the many others who were able to thrive without the occasional Skype rehearsal! Now the internet is a crucial component of the “long haul,” and there are copious resources available for ideas about how to use it effectively. This is an exciting time in history to be a composer, and though it’s not an easy road for many reasons, there are tools out there to help ease the journey.
(If you thought this post was going to be about another topic, let’s just say that gets better too!)