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Monday, November 14, 2022

A Hypothetical Graduation Speech Directed to Composers


Dear Composers,


You have achieved wonders.  Getting to where you are in life at this critical point in time is not a simple or easy achievement.   


Development of the skills required to become proficient in the art and craft of musical composition is without question an undeniably daunting task.  Manipulating and organizing sound distributed amongst multiple dimensions in a logical and coherent way, and learning how to effectively communicate your detailed work to trained musicians and the audience at large is no simple feat. 

It can be a gut-wrenching experience to initially find - and then mentally extract - the abstract musical impulse hidden somewhere deep in your soul, and to elevate this raw impulse to the level of notes and squiggles logically sketched on the page in a configuration that is understandable and readily conveyable.  It can equally be taxing, laborious, and excruciatingly challenging to develop those notes into definitive musical ideas.  Your product will ultimately be deciphered by musicians who will realize your precisely notated and edited score.  

Getting to a final compositional result is a mysterious process - beginning with the abstract thought that originated deep in the recesses of your mind, through all the intermittent stages of revision, to a perfected, complete work that is worthy of hearing, well-articulated, and ready for performance. This process is an amazing transformation that few people are equipped to see, hear, or experience firsthand. Those who have studied Beethoven's sketches will gain a glimpse into this elaborate compositional process - and perhaps even insight regarding the trade secrets related to how the inner workings of music is created.


At times you will have to invent systems that do not exist as of yet.  You will have to go beyond your current training and delve into areas that have not been fully explored by your predecessors or contemporaries.  You will have to invent music intended for the future while at the same time respecting the vast body of a seminal musical canon of the past.  Every composer has the responsibility to know what came before them, going back many centuries in history if possible.


As a dynamic living inventor of designs in musical sound, you may someday find yourself at a critical juncture in life, where prior assumptions you've long-held about music have suddenly become staid and stale.  You will be forced to confront your assumptions, beliefs, and even the established tenets of your solid musical training.  You will be forced to evolve your technique beyond what you have learned as an artist.  Only time will tell which creative path you ultimately carve out for yourself in the long arc of your career.  Do not rush to find the first idea that hints of innovation.  Look for the real thing.  You don't have to be a disruptor.  You can further an existing tradition if you wish.  Innovation will find you if you work hard every single day at your chosen craft.  You will know it when you see it.  Don’t follow false gods. Fads come and go.


After dedicating your life to music, and channeling so much of personal energy to become who you are today, we must pay tribute to you.  Your persistence, hard work, and selfless determination is what provides continuity to our complex culture.  Musical composition is a black art, a religion, rocket science, a type of information theory.  It is math, poetry, linguistics, engineering, astrophysics, psychology, project management, alchemy, and cultural anthropology all in one.  Music is everything that makes us human.  By choosing to be a composer, you’ve placed a lot of weight on your shoulders.  You know the history of music.  You are now part of it.  This is an awesome responsibility to bare.  For-better-or-worse, it is the career path that you have decisively chosen to follow.  It will be a challenging, swerving road, not a super-highway to stardom.


Most composers can point to important people who encouraged and/or inspired them to follow this sometimes-treacherous career path.  But, if you think back to all the people in your life who may have cautiously discouraged you from pursuing a career as a composer, you can understand their legitimate concerns.  It's a familiar story for most of us. It is likely that close friends, family, and even trusted teachers advised us NOT to become composers as a protective measure somewhere along the way.  "A career in music is difficult" they said.  Rationally, you can see why they thought this way.  It’s no secret that music - generally speaking – is not known to be a financially rewarding profession for all. Contemporary composers of serious music composition face a poor prospect of financial security. Personally, I reply to these detractors (and sometimes a more pragmatic version of myself) with this quip: “If I were in this for the money, I would have become a plumber.”


The reward we get - and the satisfaction we can reliably count on - is self-evident.  When "in the zone" of the creative act - the feeling of reaching beyond the boundaries of our ordinary self to create something new and unique in the world is highly gratifying.  Composing can elicit a powerful feeling of elation, a unique intoxication that few lay people ever experience in their daily lives.  Making new music, I assert, is a higher art-form and a far more interesting profession than say, fitting pipes.  It is something we do because we must.  It is something we chose to do while overriding our better common sense and the practical advice of trusted others. It is who we are. 


Today, as you leave the nurturing and supportive environment that has hopefully helped you along the way with your goal to become a competent composer, you must have apprehension for your substantial accomplishment.  You must already know that your life work, the music for which you have expended so much blood, sweat, and tears to create, may not necessarily be in high demand in a commercial culture that does not adequately value contemporary music as much as it should.  Because music temporarily fills the air and then dissipates into inert nothingness, its monetary value is difficult to bottle up and package for profit.  The monetary value of contemporary music scores by known composers does not even move the needle compared to what established visual artists can potentially earn. Not even close.


All of us fully appreciate that at this important milestone in your personal history - your graduation – that it is a critical important inflection point.  The societal pressures on you from here on out will be enormous.  At times it will seem that everything has conspired against you. Simply finding the time to write your music will be hard. Time to compose will undoubtedly be sucked away by routine priorities - such as earning enough money to cover the rent, purchase food, and to pay those damn utility bills.  Even finding ample mental space to think about music offline can be hard to fit into the daily grind. The discipline of music composition with all its complexities, along with the mental and emotional energy needed to achieve it at an optimal level, does not progress very well as a part-time activity.  For many working in the field, musical composition must be an all-or-nothing career pursuit.


Career? Yes, I did use that loaded word.


This is where my speech gets more complicated, and for the uninitiated, perhaps a little dark.


You may have observed a bifurcation in your cohort: those who are becoming very successful as composers, and the rest (the majority), who have not.  The reality of that bifurcation will become quite pronounced as the years and decades of your life pass by - depending on which side of the equation you sit.  


There are different measures of success, and a small percentage of your class (perhaps one or two percent) will ultimately make it into the upper echelons of that intensely sought-after professional strata.  That two percent cap is, at least in the United States, a more-or-less hard limit determined by the ability of society to adequately absorb the high numbers of serious composers of concert music who desire to work in the field professionally. On the other hand, the number of talented graduates increases in numbers every year. For the arts, it's an embarrassment of riches.


Intuitively and intellectually, you have known all along about this predicament. You are about to experience it emotionally and at a visceral level. From the beginning, people have warned you about this day of reckoning. That day is here. It is today. It is now.


If this comes as a surprise, please don’t shoot me.  I am just a messenger from your future.  I am like you.  I was in your shoes.  I am in your shoes.


If this message is a downer and never got formally relayed to you, it may be because the emphasis on composer training in higher education and at elite music conservatories today is mostly geared toward training, support, and a well-intended nurturing of your skills.  The practical, and more importantly, tactical aspects about what really happens after graduation - and how to survive in a post-academic world - are typically avoided in polite conversation.  It's essentially a "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.  


While some token entrepreneurial skills are now incorporated into today’s modernized curriculum, an honest conversation about the statistical likelihood of failure is a very difficult pill to swallow and most teachers and institutions opt to look the other way rather than broach this troubling subject.  Reality is a bummer, so why even bring it up?  To bring it up also may raise uncomfortable ethical questions about their own legitimacy and about why they continue to accept compensation in exchange for providing guidance and instruction leading toward an esoteric career in music composition which (by some accounts) no longer exists.


But, as you know, there are exceptions to the rule.  Some composers beat the odds, thrive, and succeed.  While there are reasons for this which I will outline in a moment, at least some aspect of career success can be attributed to randomness: i.e., just plain luck.  Being in the right place at the right time can pay dividends.  As Woody Allen famously said, “Half of life is just showing up.”


I am of the belief that it is best to acknowledge the limitations of the system, to admit and know up front that life is not fair.  “Trust-fund composers” exist and have always existed throughout the course of history.  Some of our greatest composers have come from a privileged economic class.  More power to them.


Some composers will thrive because of their magnetic personality, excellent sales skills, active self-promotion, personal networking, hard work, and a network of carefully nurtured connections. That is human nature, and these important traits aren’t strictly limited to the world of business and commerce. These rules apply to everyone, even working composers.


It is likely that you will have challenges not only composing music, but in getting it performed once the score and parts are prepared. After one departs from the auspices of academia the dynamics of program curation by professional soloists, ensembles, and orchestras that specialize in new music becomes problematic and political, to say the least.  There is little incentive for them to perform or record your sometimes complex and difficult music unless the project is a subsidized in an academic setting, connected to external funding, or if it will advance somehow their careers to be associated with your name. Most of these options are rather unlikely scenarios for an independent emerging composer. The next few years will be challenging for you on several levels, to put it mildly.


It took you decades to develop and hone your skills as a composer.  If all goes well, you will spend many more decades developing your craft, improving, and moving forward in the field both personally and professionally.


In the face of stiff and persistent opposition you may even question your own sanity, self-worth, and determination. You may feel defeated at times. Dealing with expected wholesale rejection is difficult for anyone, but receiving an endless stream of form-letters and disappointing email regarding your hard-earned musical efforts can be psychologically devastating in the long term. You need to be prepared for that. Even the finest of composers of national reputation get dissed on a regular basis.  It’s all part of the vicious and often absurd political theatre we have subscribed to. We reluctantly agree to play along since there is no other viable option available.


Know that rejection is coming, and be ready for it.  At some point you will be deemed too old to be considered as an emerging composer, and henceforth arbitrarily excluded from countless competitions and opportunities.  At age 30 you may still be maturing, but if you have not "made it" at 40, some will imply that you should look elsewhere or find another profession.


Even if the stated restrictions on the application for grants, fellowships, residencies, workshops, or awards do not explicitly state a cutoff age as a prerequisite, often there is an implied bias which in practice will have an intended result. The long list of all-important resume-building milestones that are so important for you to attain in the formative years of your career can require decades to accumulate. These illusive but influential indicators of achievement often come with an implied expiration date for acquisition. If you miss out on attaining those important and established accolades of honor, your career may be relegated to the status of burnt toast.


Think strategically. Know that your life is primarily about writing the best possible music that you can, and about creating something truly unique that only you have the capability of creating.  Do it consistently - whenever and wherever you can.  Survival for the long-term will in the end may be what is crucial to your success.  This may mean that you will be forced to compromise at times, i.e., work day jobs at companies that you might find repugnant and draining - just to get by.  In order to write music, you first need to survive. Employment compromise is not an uncommon situation for the artist.  Many professional musicians work odd jobs. Just remember who you are, and that being a musician is first and foremost.  It is at the core of what you do.


With luck you will reach the narrow top percentile of fortunate composers who attain the honor of a university professorship and/or one of those who is published, recorded, and performed frequently by the leading musicians and top ensembles of our time.  If not, you will likely know a few of those who fall into that elite and highly-treasured category of professional academic standing or fame.  You should honor and respect those people, and nurture your relationship to them.  Yes, they may be significantly more successful than you, but they are your colleagues - partners in the higher crime of composing new music.  Beware of a human inclination toward professional jealousy, since it is mentally unproductive and psychologically corrosive to accumulate anger or frustration regarding their comparative success and your apparent lack of it.


Ultimately your psychological net-worth will be about writing great music. There is no culture cartel or socio-political bias that will prevent you from writing exceptional and outstanding music - if you are well-known or not.  Whether your music ends up being widely performed and acknowledged today, or is something that might possibly be discovered at a future time, is an interesting and evolving open question. Careers come and go.  Fame is elusive.  Nothing is guaranteed or set in stone.


The notes you write on the page are magic.  Never forget that.  Nobody will ever be able to imitate what you do with accuracy or re-create the thoughtful and elegant music you invent from scratch.  Your musical signature is personal and unmistakable. You will compose unique music, create one-of-a-kind art, and it will in the end be priceless.


You might have a glorious career in music composition, but I also regret to say that you might not. The determination of that outcome as an issue is separate and distinct from the initial reason about why you choose to become a composer in the first place. You have worked incredibly hard to get to the state of where you are today.  But keep in mind that the yet-to-be-determined long-term outcome of your career is part of a chaotic world-order which we do not have as much influence or control over as we would like to.


Today we celebrate the achievement of your hard-earned goal.  We welcome you to the club. Congratulations! God speed!  I wish you; we all wish you, the best of luck!


Now the hard work begins.



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