A few years ago, my student-run new music organization Ethos began an “Overnight Composers” series. We bring composers who are relatively early in their careers to campus for a day. There’s no attendant concert or residency other than a couple of lecture-presentations on their own music and a topic of their choice. After treating them well once the lectures are done and putting them up for the night, we fly them back the next morning. It works out really well, since it increases the number of early- and mid-level composers that my students get to interact with (both through the presentations as well as taking them out to dinner afterwards). For many of our guests it also provides a useful line on their tenure dossiers as well as experience presenting their music to a new music department.
This week Jennifer Jolley will be joining us as our first “overnight composer” of the year. An active composer and educator–a recent graduate of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, she’s just started her first year as the new assistant professor of music composition and theory at Ohio Wesleyan University–Jennifer has garnered quite a following within the new music community, although not for what you would normally expect. While most composers become well-known because of their successes and the accolades that follow, readers of Jennifer’s blog “Why Compose When You Can Blog?” know her because of her failures.
In addition to blog posts on topics such as studying composition, turning 29, explaining why composing in bed is bad for you, taking a lesson with Augusta Read Thomas, and celebrating Cincinnati’s first streetcar, Jennifer has a running series of blog posts (she’s up to #60) entitled “Composer Fail.” Emerging from her suggestion that composers keep their rejection letters from competitions and job applications for scrapbooking purposes, Jennifer decided to post each of her rejections as they came in. Over time she has allowed the series to evolve (eventually adding photos of cats to each one, for instance). “Composer Wins” are posted as well.
I find this interesting and important for a few reasons. First, the fact that Jennifer is already up to sixty “fails” in the two and a half years since she started the series points to the number of competitions for which she’s applying. This is a wonderful demonstration–teaching through example–of the doggedness and stubbornness that many composers need to have in order to establish their reputations and find their place. Second, the simple fact that a composer is brave enough to put their career, with all its nooks and crannies, on public display is notable. Most composers, if they do take care of their public image at all, do their utmost to emphasize only the best parts. While this is perfectly natural–few of us enjoy having a spotlight shone on our foibles–it also has created a slightly “artificially enhanced” quality over a good portion of our community. Finally, one gets the sense–by reading not only the “fail” posts but the entire blog–of who Jennifer is as a person; to be honest, I’m excited to meet her tomorrow partially because I already have a sense of who she is.
This last point is especially important for composers. For as much as we would like to have our music be the true conduit through which others can understand who we are, it is increasingly necessary for living composers to allow musicians and audiences to discover who the person is behind the score. Performers want to be able to not only enjoy a composer’s music but enjoy working with a composer on a personal basis. Whether it is through the use of a personal blog–both Nico Muhly and John Mackey are deeply associated with their online musings–or other means, the decision to allow others to see at least a part of one’s life as a composer is something that we all will have to make in the future.