Sunday, October 01, 2006

New Music, a Mixed Economy

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has an excellent blog article on a number of serious topics, in part responding to my comments on his productivity survey.

I am at the limit of my economic expertise here, so the following is a tentative clarification of my position. It was, in fact, a rhetorical exaggeration when I identified our new music economy as a gift economy. It is, in fact, a mixed economy with elements of gift, market, and command economies all playing a role. Some composers will, in fact, find that their works can be measured in terms of supply and demand, and the labor involved can be measured as an investment, from which one can estimate cost, return, and perhaps even profit, in terms of money. Other composers may have their works supported by some command processes, with compensation related to their productivity as a composer, but in non-negotiable monetary values. This form of patronage, whether state or private, institutional or private, can be direct -- immediately supporting muscial labor in the form of commissions and recordings, or indirect, for example by hiring composers as teachers or administrators, and expecting some creative work on the side. (Even Milton Friedman, as market-oriented as they come, recognizes the societies must support the maintenance of their "monuments"). However, I am satisfied that our work largely falls into a gift economy, and this is not an altogether bad thing. For one, it is more inclusive, not limiting the category of new music to some narrowly defined class of professionals or full-time specialists or those in the biggest urban centers or associated with the biggest institutions.. Not all of us can become a Philip Glass, with his market successes, but more importantly: not all of us would want to. I like receiving compensation for my musical labor, but it is not always expected, and the level of compensation is for a large part, non-negotiable, when not entirely capricious. Moreover, when Dennis writes that:
Calling it such (and acting upon it as such) is a capitulation of responsibility for participation in the de facto trade society. It rejects understanding the dynamics of the 'micro-economy' and setting out to change it, enlarging opportunity and enhancing the ability to move from micro-economy to sustaining economy.

I have to respond that I see no significant act of responsibility in participating in the trade society. Our participation is that society is already de facto, as we have to feed, cloth, and house ourselves, and we will do what it takes within that society to make survival possible. Some musicians will to build structures or institutions for their music within that economy, and the more power to them. However, I happen to see my responsibility as participating in mechanisms and processes that are alternatives, if not active resistance, to that de facto trade society.

(I'll note that as bad as it seems to be for new music in the real world, in many ways it's never been better. There is more -- and more diverse -- music available, in one form another, to more people. The possibility of a work of serious music dropping off the face of the planet is less likely than ever, as once it has entered the web, in whatever state, it is apparently eternal. It is, in fact, the popular music monoculture which is doing poorly. After decades of consolidating their businesses, they have found themselves unprepared to compete in a marketplace in which shelfspace is virtual and consumer choice is practically unlimited and the recent power grabs at places like GEMA are signs of desperation at shrinking market share in a market that is ever-more difficult to oversee.

I disagree with Dennis, here:

Low productivity is a symptom of a greater compositional disease, a disease whose vector is starvation and sickening of opportunity. Like a body that feeds upon itself to stay alive under stress, the body of new nonpop composition, presentation, and audition has been feeding upon itself for nearly a century. If nutrition is so badly needed for this patient, it matters little where it comes from. Consciously increasing productivity places nutrients in our feeding tube.

First of all, I have to challenge the assumption that this condition can be dated "for nearly a century". The economic situation for composers has never been good, and without patronage or a day job, very few composers would have ever composed anything, even the most famous cases of hyperproductivity. But more importantly, we each come to music with different sensibilities, interests, ambitions, experiences, and talents. Some composers simply don't have many pieces in them, and they are not necessarily lesser composers because of it. While some composers do improve their art by composing more pieces, others improve by working more intensively on a small number of pieces, composing and recomposing, getting every detail right. Some compose out of lightning bolts of inspiration, others simply work long and hard. The problem here is that productivity will inevitably be measured by quantity, whether in number or length of pieces or in the amount of time spent on a piece. However, not all composers are gifted in the same way, so no single measure of those gifts is going to work. (There's that word, gift, again). Do we value Webern, Varese, Ruggles, Kurtag, Chowning any less for the small size of their catalogs? Do we value them more for their scruples? Do we value a Clemens Non Papa or a Hovhaness more? I sure don't view my own low quantitative productivity as symptom of an illness, but rather -- and perhaps, optimistically -- as a sign of the standards I set for myself. I'd estimate that I compose about a minute of music every day, but most of those minutes I cheerfully abandon, for the potential of making something better.

I think that new music plays an important role the real world, if only, at the very least, it is constant irritation to that world, a constant reminder that affairs can be different, indeed, better. I have to return, once again, to Nagg's joke, in Beckett's Endgame, about the tailor, who takes longer to make a pair of trousers than God took to create the world: "But my dear Sir...look at the world...and look at my trousers!"

1 comment:

M. L. Place Badarak said...

and thank you.