Friday, January 18, 2008

Lessons for the young

Neglect. There is probably no greater difficulty for a composer than negotiating an uneasy economy in which the personal value of ones work will never satisfactorily equate with a market value. Musical works and their authors are also subject to the unpredictable caprices of style (now in, now out) and the unexplainable inequities of musical politics (fighting over bloody nothing). It is no wonder that composers are often prone to melancholy, bitterness, anger, even paranoia, and the most inventive among us, sometimes directly as a result of those personal qualities which make one inventive in the first place, tend to suffer most.

The greatest rock and roll band of their time, Spot 1019, put out an album with the title "The World Owes Me A Buzz"; their sarcasm could not have been stated any better: not only does the world has no notion of any debt to you, most of your working life will be spent doing anything but that which you do best of all, simply in order to survive, and everything you will ever produce belongs to the "public domain" with your possession granted only temporarily.

I owe a lot to John Cage, both from his music and his way of organizing his work, but perhaps nothing more than his example of how to be a composer and not be bitter in the face of neglect. If I understood correctly, it was the combination of the negative example of his teacher Adolph Weiss and his own sunny disposition that made Cage determined not to become bitter, and by and large, he managed it.

If you can learn early on not to have any illusions about the material circumstances of our profession, you'll be at an advantage. It's useful to think about your work in terms of that which your compose out of your own desires and that which is composed as work-for-hire, and cherish the few opportunities when the two impulses coincide. It's also an advantage, methinks, to have a comfortable enough home and place to work. Realize that your work requires time, and purchasing time often means giving up something else. If you're social and familial, making time for loved ones is important, too.


kraig grady said...

Cage is good but maybe not the best example cause he
was successful and was making a living as a composer. So no reason to be bitter.
Possibly it is a man like Erv Wilson who is perfectly happy doing things in his house and mailing them out to those who have showed interest. I think he would have remained even more unknown except for the situation of people presenting his work elsewhere and taking credit for it. Even this has not made him bitter. But not naive either. Somehow he seems to have accomplished more than those who fight for the crumbs that aren't there.

Anonymous said...

Grady's comment about Cage being "sucessful" is
only applicable to the last 20 years of his life. Cage lived on very little money even into the early 1970s, and most of what he made he gave to others in support of their work. Cage first qualified for a credit card in 1968 -- his financial stability before then being deemed "inadequate".
But it was Cage's nourished and luminescent attituded that kept him afloat through most of his difficult living circumstances, and was a model for others.

Anonymous said...

An addition to the previous anonymous comment: the majority of Cage's income came not from his work as a composer, but as a performer and lecturer. That is similar to Igor Stavinsky, for whom most of the inicome of his last two decades came from conducting and public appearances. And for Cage's first 1960s credit card, it was established by an advanced and secured deposit amount.