Monday, March 7, 2011

Corrosive composition careerism

The following is from a very interesting email discussion with LDS composers about funding, grants, etc. of new music:

I have to admit, this has been one of my least favorite subjects of late. I think our art form has become infected with a depressing careerism which has crowded out the things that got us into this in the first place, which I guess would be the love of sounds. Clearly the support for the arts, and all other superstructure, has been on the wane in this country steadily since 1980 and this trend shows no sign of changing. Clearly there has been a steady philistinization of our culture. There are fewer resources to go around so it is natural that the competition gets stiffer.
Moreover, the music "industry" has been in a freefall for a few years now.

Attali suggests that the economy of music-making is a harbinger of economic trends in the culture at large. Does that mean that our society is in for complete economic collapse in the future?

Well, maybe music should be modeling something better, more sustainable.

I lived in Seattle in the '90s during which time I had a chamber opera company that did some unusual and really interesting events. They were all completely funded by ticket prices except the last one. There were three composers, a writer and some singers that came together simply to create some musical works and present them to audiences. We discovered that it was quite easy to rent a small theater and to make a simple arrangement for percentage of ticket sales for each participant in the productions. We were all invested in the success of each other. We always managed, even with all the expenses, to pay everybody involved, albeit modestly.
For the last show I was involved in, we applied for and received a grant from King County, but that piece was the most difficult to produce and the most problematic (maybe partially as a result). I think it was quite good, but the funding had many strings attached and added a kind of weight to the whole thing. The previous shows were much more fun.

I went to a conference of university music professors recently where a well-known composer gave the keynote address. The gist of it was that, it doesn't matter how good your music is if you don't know how to "get it out there", or "sell it", and that this is what we should be conveying to our students. It was kind of a depressing talk. I thought, why not talk about music, or sound, or harmony, or timbre. That's what I'm interested in. If I have to spend more time thinking/talking/teaching about self-promotion than this transcendent art form, then I want out, and I don't want to recommend the activity to my students. It all has to start with the work. What I would like to call sharing of this work can only occur when there is something of value to share.

Excessive self-promotion and grantwriting can be harmful to the imagination and spirit in my experience because you are forced to focus so much on yourself. Plus you end up trying to second-guess other people, and thus begin to self-censor your work. I guess this is where I think collectives that are run by composers (like Salty Cricket, and, I think, Seattle Experimental Opera) are quite good. You minimize the red-tape and help/support/nurture other artists. It's so much better than competing, trying to beat other artists in zero-sum-gain situations. If you create a performance situation using the same level of creativity that you bring to your composing and promote fellow artists' work in the process, then you get away from the kind of self-centered thing that I think is so corrosive.

I'm not against grants or applying for them, but I think we need to get our values straight and put music-making first. If fighting tooth and nail for a few dollars and trying to beat out the other guy crowds out the time, energy, attention and joy of imagining, making and sharing sounds (not to mention family, religion and other pursuits), then maybe we need to find other ways of making music.

Choose or find some sounds to make
Find/choose a time and place to share these sounds
Find people to make and hear these sounds

Do this a lot. After doing your best, working hard and listening to inspiration, don't worry too much about:
1. If people like it
2. If you'll become rich and famous
3. If it will lead to more "opportunities"
4. If it's any good
These are all by-products of inspired, diligent and joyous work. The rewards should be in the work itself, not so much in the byproducts, because they are unpredictable.

1 comment:

ellinorpetersen said...

Thanks for your advice. I especially liked 4. If it's any good. Whether people like my music or not I haven't worried as much about, like you said, it is a byproduct of the work. Worrying about whether the sounds are any good stops the flow of imagining.