I only attended three concerts this past week. Instead, during the other nights, I attempted to work on my own music—with varying degrees of success ranging from very productive to not productive at all. New York City has way too many distractions, and it’s hard to say “no” when people want to meet up and talk about music. That’s why my normally scheduled composing time, from 6:00-8:00 a.m., has been so effective. To date, no one has attempted to divert me from my own compositional work at that hour. I realize as I type this that I’m probably inviting some kind of intrusion before too long, but hopefully not. And truth be told, my usual regimen has often been more like 6:30 to 8:00 because when I wake up and immediately walk into my studio to turn on the computer, I inevitably check email before I do anything else; that’s a wormhole that usually kills at least half an hour. This morning, in a rare moment of willpower, I refused to check my email and as a result I pretty much worked out the final order of a sequence of 108 deceptive cadences that had been bothering me for days. (The reason I was fixated on this particular compositional scheme is, alas, a story for another time.)

I feel particularly good about my early morning strategy even though most of the rest of this month is more or less a wash. On Wednesday I head to Minneapolis for the 2012 Conference of Chorus America and the American Composers Forum’s concurrent “ChoralConnections” convening. Then the following week I’ll be in Greece for the 2012 General Assembly of the International Association of Music Information Centres. I’ve yet to figure out a way to eke out composing time when I’m on the road. Reading this, you might imagine that I’m somewhat frustrated that my composing time is so limited and circumscribed. But nothing could actually be further from the truth. Without the exposure to all the music I hear in concerts and on the recordings I acquire when I’m on the road, as well as the conversations about music I have with people wherever I happen to be, my creative fuel would be severely depleted.

Back in the mid-1980s I worked as a high school teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language). I had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to get to where I taught (Thomas Jefferson High School, which was deep in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood called East New York, more than an hour’s commute away from midtown Manhattan, where I then lived). But I finished work in the early afternoon and had the entire summer free to compose (something that seems very appealing as we approach the end of another school year). Yet I accomplished almost nothing compositionally during that time. While I credit the experience with giving me invaluable life lessons and transforming me from an impractical and somewhat arrogant teenager into a mature adult (at least in comparison with who I had been), teaching offered me very little in the way of musical nourishment. In fact, during those years I frequently considered abandoning writing music altogether since it seemed like such an effete activity given all the harsh realities I came to learn about through my exposure to the lives of recent immigrants.

Of course, the creation of new work, as well as how we respond to it, is inevitably influenced by everything that goes on around us. This is something I finally understood when I went to grad school and immersed myself in the study of ethnomusicology, which is what I did immediately after deciding not to continue my career as a high school teacher. I also realize now that I probably never would have pursued the study of music of different cultures had I not personally interacted with people from other parts of the world on a daily basis for several years. The music I now write, as well as the rest of the activities I do that divert me from composing, are by-products of that ethnomusicological immersion and, the more I think about it, the years I spent teaching. So for me, there is ultimately no conflict between writing music and either listening to or advocating for the music of others; in fact, in my world view, these activities are thoroughly symbiotic. That said, twenty-four hours is probably not the ideal length for my day, but that’s something I have no power to change.

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6 thoughts on “

  1. Cole T

    “There can be nothing exclusive about substantial art. It comes directly out of the heart of the experience of life and thinking about life and living life.”
    –Charles Ives

    That quote always makes me feel better when I feel like I’m neglecting putting notes on paper, since it reminds me that all the things we do and experience become our music.

    1. chris s

      Possibly Ives was wrong – he was able to write with a comfortable living from his work in insurance … and anyway a good deal of his music was written before he became quite busy with insurance. Maybe the actual art is doing the daily mundane tasks well – the putting down of notes, the brush to the canvas, fictional stories to paper, just little fripperies to assure ourselves of the exceptionality in the face of our insignificant presence in the universe.

  2. chris

    Yes but unlike those kids and their families, I imagine you or your family had a decent enough credit history to receive funding for your studies? Or did you receive a scholarship? Are you still paying the debt for your graduate studies? And what is the income composers earn in the US – especially those with grad studies? I recall there is a figure given here.

    Composing most Western art music still is an effette pursuit simply because there is no function to it – it isn’t to sell records, it isn’t to build bridges or purify your water or dispose of waste. At best it can serve liturgical use for another institution whose function – aside from charitable work – has dubious function in our lives. Maybe some dressing for pomp and circumstance.

    Yes, music has benefits to the mind and body. So music, in general, has a limited beneficial effect. But one needs not to compose to gain its benefit, nor does it need to be skill developed to a very high degree. So why bother composing for a string quartet, orchestra or a plethora of laptops when you could have non-musicians improvise music with hands, feet and voices? Why commit to paper something you really don’t want a carbon copy performance each time and there is no ideal realization of it?

    Maybe Frank it is time to go back to East New York and do some teaching artist classes in music and music composition – those people need it more than does another heavily over-pedigreed composer’s work from the same diminishing well of contemporary classical music require one more of your generous reviews.

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Chris, my undergraduate studies at Columbia were paid for by a complex combination of financial aid, scholarship, a student loan, a small contribution from my family which did not have much money, and a work study program: I was a food server in the student cafeteria for four years which helped pay the bills and also fed me, even if it wasn’t always the world’s most satisfying food. And I lived off campus at home because I could not afford to live in a dormitory.

      I paid my student loan off over the course of a decade, but it was because the moment I had my undergraduate degree and threw myself in the work force as a high school teacher in the NYC public school system. It did not pay particularly well, even for those days: the starting salary was, if I recall, $18.5K. When I went back to graduate school, I had a full tuition fellowship as well as a stipend. I maintained odd jobs teaching ESL to adults and somehow got by. That was many years ago.

      As for my “go[ing] back to East New York and do[ing] some teaching artist classes in music and music composition,” I doubt that happening any time soon. When I went to work for the NYC Board of Education, I actually qualified and received two licenses–one for music (which was my true love) and one for English. I was able to acquire these licenses since I had a double major at Columbia, largely because I got more interested in reading literature than in dealing with certain aspects of the music department there at that time (that’s another much longer story) and so I spent my entire senior year taking literature classes and no music classes at all. Despite these qualifications, I could not get work teaching music or “English” (e.g. literature). Instead I was asked to teach outside my license area–ESL (English as a Second Language). It was an extremely rewarding experience and I learned a great deal from it both about the world around me and about myself. I immersed myself in all kinds of extra-curricular activities and sometimes felt I was making a difference in people’s lives even though I also felt the system was designed in such a way that no matter how much I or anyone else tried to do, there was often less than optimal support for it. It was also incredibly draining emotionally and was not something I could foresee doing for the rest of my life. During the years I taught, I did little else. (Composing was not the only part of my life that I neglected.) I have friends who have taught in the public school system far longer than I could; they are heroes.

      While you may believe that “those people [in East New York] need [whatever I can offer them] more than does another heavily over-pedigreed composer’s work from the same diminishing well of contemporary classical music require one more of your generous reviews,” I derive a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from what I do with my life and I believe that music has intrinsic value beyond whatever problem it may or may not be able to solve in our every day lives. In fact, one time when I was teaching a class back in 1986, a student was listening to music on his headphones and ignoring me. I joked with him, pulled his headphones off and listened in on what he was so focused on instead of my class. (It was a running schtick when someone was wearing a… walkman. Remember those?) He had been listening to Beethoven’s 6th symphony, the Pastorale. I was slightly startled. I put the headphones back on his head and told him what he was listening to was better than anything I would be able to say to him that day. My students were shocked by my response, but it was what I believed. (I mostly still do.) The following week I brought him a recording of Ives’s 4th symphony, since to my mind that was an even “better” symphony. But he didn’t get into it. I was younger then.

  3. chris


    But one needs to compose to gain its benefit, nor does it need to be skill developed to a very high degree.

  4. Mandola Joe York

    Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
    And hermits are contented with their cells;
    And students with their pensive citadels;
    Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
    Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
    High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
    Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
    In truth the prison, unto which we doom
    Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
    In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
    Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
    Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
    Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
    Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

    William Wordsworth


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