A photo of a highway billboard with the following quote attributed to Confucius: "The inner nature of man is the province of music"
What Keeps Us Going?

What Keeps Us Going?

I began this series of articles by acknowledging that we are living in challenging times for new music, and I asked the question: How do we composers navigate the current conditions so as to continue growing our artistic practice? After contemplating some particular concerns of the mid-career and unaffiliated composer in the first two installments, I want to now explore an even broader question: What keeps us going? Why do composers continue to pursue marginal types of music that are so little heard and even less understood outside of a small circle of friends and colleagues? I know I ask myself this question on a regular basis, and there have certainly been times when I seriously considered giving up. But like many of you, I persist.

Some of my most difficult, self-questioning moments have come about while trying to explain myself to distant relatives or new acquaintances. It goes something like this:  “What do you do?” “I’m a composer.” “Oh… like for TV and film?” “No, not really. Mostly concert music.” “Oh…what kind of music is that?” “Well, it’s kind of like ‘classical’ music, but with some more contemporary influences, sometimes with electronics, sort of experimental….” “You mean like _________?” “Yeah, kind of like that…” “Oh…wow, that’s amazing you can make a living doing that!” “Well, actually, I do have a day job.” “Oh, I see…hmm.” I’ve tried different approaches to these “what do you do” questions over the years, but it always seems to end up feeling awkward. At this point I just tell people I’m a “musician,” and that’s made things a little easier.

At this point I just tell people I’m a “musician,” and that’s made things a little easier.

And so it goes. Though I was relieved of the notion that I might earn my living making the music I make long ago, the idea still obviously dominates our culture, and as our own personal economic and social pressures grow over the years, it can be tough to stay focused on music and to continue composing. Just last month, my career reached a kind of new low, which hopefully is merely a sign of the times. I performed on one of those freeform, multi-artist bills at an underground bar in a hip part of Brooklyn. Though the audience was small, the performance went well, but as can often happen in the new music ghetto, I earned exactly $5—and I had to buy my own drinks! So it was a net loss. While this is just one anecdotal example, other performances often go much better. Still, to be a 50+-year-old composer, 20+ years into a career and be losing money playing a low-key, underground gig is a situation likely to inspire serious reflection. I know I’m not the only one in this boat, but these moments can certainly give us pause.

So why then do we continue with this? Are we insane? Probably not, but I think a lot of us can’t really help it. Again, I know I’m in good company when I admit that I’m hopelessly obsessed with music. A day without music is, quite simply, like a day without sunshine! Music is what gives my life meaning. It’s through music that I organize and comprehend the world. To quote Jacques Attali from Noise, “Music…is intuition, a path to knowledge.” For John Cage, “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” For Pauline Oliveros, “It was the ecstasy of hearing a piece of mine performed…I just wanted to have that experience again and again.” These are but merely some of the ways we become hooked, and I definitely relate to all three.

Why do we continue with this? Are we insane? Probably not, but I think a lot of us can’t really help it.

But we still need to function in the real world. How we negotiate these often conflicting needs is unique to each one of us. But continue to create we must, today more than ever. In our current period of economic, political, cultural, and ecological instability, creating our music can be a political act, one that affirms positive values and speaks truth to power. This is not to assume we all have revolutionary aspirations. But it has occurred to me that, somewhat in contrast to the prevailing narrative, all of us engaged with new music today are in some sense “mavericks,” and as we have learned from history, it is these marginal mavericks who can often have the greatest lasting impact. To return to Lou Harrison, whose essay “Ruggles, Ives, Varèse” I quoted in my last piece, “Confucius once remarked very neatly that you could tell the state of the nation from the condition of its music, and he didn’t mean the kind of thing you get on the radio.” Let us continue to make our music, the kind you don’t get on the radio, and hopefully we can help contribute to a better state of the nation.

In my fourth and final essay which will appear in two weeks, I will try to tie all these themes together and propose a kind of action plan for the unaffiliated, mid-career composer, sketching out some possible paths for continuing to grow our artistic practice in the face of challenging circumstances.

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 NewMusicBox.org. In 2017, the venerable New York... Read more »

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