Thursday, April 28, 2005

Going Pro

The mechanical aspects of composition can be self-taught. You listen to music, read scores, discovering musics you like (or don't like) and how those musics are put together (or fall apart), and then try to make music of your own, first hewing close to models, and then gathering skills in making something more of your own. But pure auto-didacts are rarely (but admittedly, if then, spectacularly) successful composers. Most composers defintely profit from some teaching, or mentoring. How, then, are teachers useful to young composers?

Most important, I suppose, teachers have some experience and a second pair of ears to share -- pointing out repertoire or catching errors that you might otherwise miss, and bring another focus to the work. Teachers may set problems for the students, experiments that may or may not have established solutions; they may introduce restrictions that force the student to decide what elements are essential in a work; or they may encourage the student to go farther, in extremes or scale. Often, a teacher may just bring some polish, a finishing touch, a bit of attitude to a students work: Morton Feldman is said once to have told a student with a lengthy score of great density: "That chord needs a cowbell."

The stuff you learn from your teachers can rarely be anticipated, and seldom lets itself sum up in a word or two. I learned about scale and density and identity from Gordon Mumma, about commitment and patience from La Monte Young, and about the need to clarify the musical idea from Alvin Lucier. My own music has taken a classical (not even "neo-") turn of late, and it's sometimes hard for listeners to imagine (let alone understand) the relationship between my music and that of my teachers, but it is real, if not always explicit.

Sometimes teachers will introduce a student to something that is not immediately musical, but will have an impact that is ultimately much larger than some technique for pushing notes around: Lucier pointed me in the direction of the visual artist Robert Irwin; John Cage told me to "go to Nobby Brown".

Choosing teachers is a loaded business. On my senior exams in music, I mentioned La Monte Young in the context of a question about tradition and innovation in music. One of the professors grading the exam, a musicologist, exploded on encountering La Monte's name. He called up the lead examiner and said: "I can't grade this. I went to Berkeley with La Monte Young. I saw La Monte Young brush his teeth on stage!" The lead examiner calmed down the musicologist, but sent word to me that I would have to be more careful in the future, to know my audience.

At about the same time I was taking the exam, I was applying to grad schools. I quickly learned that composers operate in networks, and that the network of experimentalists whose work moved and interested me most was a small, albeit very special, one. More slowly, I have learned that all of these networks are small and special, most of them the product of considerable struggle to establish a role for a teacher on campus, and none of them represented any great security.

There is, unfortunately, a knee-jerk tendency these days to put one network up against another, to insist on a form of competition that music and musicians do poorly. I agree that there's damn little out there in the way of resources for composers in academe, and that little bit is getting chewed at all the time. But that chewing is not caused by composers competing with one another, it's mostly because music theory and twentieth century music history are increasingly being taught by folks from the new tribes of music theorists and twentieth century music historians. The problem is not that 12-toners have a hold on jobs at Princeton (they don't) or that experimentalists have holds elsewhere (they certainly don't), or even that marching band composers at big schools in the mid-West have holds on jobs at schools with big marching bands (many music departments are letting the athletic dept. take over the band...). The problem is that these jobs, once hard-won, are always in danger of being dropped from the tenure track FTEs, or being converted into jobs for theorists or musicologists. Let's try to agree on this: any composer who retires without insuring that their FTE gets replaced by another composer has failed. (I could on further about the lack of jobs for generalists, but as a composer with a PhD in Ethnomusicology granted on the basis of a dissertation with a mix of theory and twentieth century music history, I'd just be tooting my own horn).

(I also agree that prizes and commissions are unequally distributed between networks of composers, and as much as I'd like the $500 that comes with a Pulitzer, (a) inequity of distribution is a fact which, in this case, I'll happily accept: Alvin Lucier did not win the Pulitzer for I am sitting in a room, but I am sitting in a room is that rare phenomenon: a thirty-some-year-old piece of music that still gets played, in concerts and broadcast, and is still available as a recording; and (b) consider the company you keep -- do you really want to be in a club that has both Charles Wuorinen and Gail Kubik as members?)


So you're really self-taught as a composer, but you admit to having had teachers, and you have those academic traveling papers. Your work is published, you get performances, recordings, broadcasts, and a small stream of commissions and GEMA or ASCAP or BMI royalties come in. You don't have a day job (or only have part of a day job). Do you consider yourself to be a professional composer?

I don't find the word professional very useful. It doesn't seem to have much to do with music. What are the qualifications for our profession? Who decides? What does it mean to be "unprofessional"? If I go pro, and stop being an amateur, do I have to stop loving music? Your music goes out of style -- do you lose your pro status?

In any case, I didn't see my university study as pre-professional training, which seems to me to be rather the domain of conservatories and schools of music. I believed (and still believe) in a broad liberal arts education, something open-ended, to be carried around for life, rather than certified competent at a particular skill set and sent out into a particular marketplace. I hear my music as a signal from that experience, an inseparable part of the life of the imagination, mind, and soul.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

richard friedman said...

Daniel: Have you been reading Kyle Gann's blog? He has a lot to say about teaching, students, and the "professional" musical establishment.