Sunday, November 22, 2015

Is Composing Just a Job?

I just read this in the book thread on another blog:
I've never liked the view that sets up art with a capital 'A' and the artiste is some elevated being whose devotion to pursuing his Art places him far above the rest of us schlubs. From what we know of him, Shakespeare was just some guy trying to make a buck writing plays and managing a theater company. He was not an artiste crafting words into Art. He was writing plays to earn coin for himself and his acting company, and the more coin, the better. I really am a proponent of Larry Correia's view, also held by Isaac Asimov, that writing is an everyday job that you do, well, every day, 8 (or more) hours a day, week in, week out. The only way you get good at something is practice, practice, practice, and writing is no different than anything else.
This kind of scenario would seem to fit a number of 18th century composers such as Joseph Haydn or Mozart or any of the Bachs who wrote what was required on a daily basis. Need a symphony for the weekend, when you have some guests over? Sure, Prince Nikolaus, no problem (as Haydn may have responded to his patron). But things seem rather different for composers today who are not writing film scores. The situation today seems to have evolved into two radically different kinds of scenarios. In the one, Steven Spielberg calls you up and says he needs a score for his latest flick and you have three months to write and record it. For delivering the finished score, synched to the movie, you get paid, what? According to this link, anything from $20,000 to $800,000 (if you are John Williams and it is the latest Harry Potter movie).

But for most classical composers, it is quite different. Here is an article on the state of commissioning new works today. It doesn't have much in the way of specific numbers,  but one gets the impression that most commissions for new works are for $20,000 or less! Perhaps more if you are a very established name like John Luther Adams or Philip Glass. But even then, since Glass had to work a day job well into his forties, you have the sense that a $20,000 commission a couple of times a year might be considered by most composers to be the Big Time. Yahoo! Easy Street!

Not only that, but for this measly amount what a composer today is expected to produce is not a routine work for a standard ensemble within familiar forms or genres. Oh, no. What you are expected to produce is something Entirely New, Revolutionary, Pushing the Envelope and Revealing New Aspects of the Language of Music. Just for an example, read Alex Ross in The New Yorker on the latest piece by Thomas Adès, Totentanz.
Adès’s latest creations are anything but circumspect: they are wilder, stranger, and bolder than the intricate, insolent scores with which he first made his name, in the nineteen-nineties. The opening bars of “Totentanz” give us winds shrieking in their upper registers, hectoring brass, whistles and whipcracks from the percussion section, and a splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance. It is a sound at once grand and gaudy, majestic and mordant.
Now, to be honest, I don't know what Adès was paid for this work, surely much more than $20,000. But every composer is expected to produce music of this heightened intensity--on a shoestring budget!

I'm pretty sure this is why most parents tell their kids not to go into music, but become software entrepreneurs, venture capitalists or lobbyists in Washington. That's where the money is.

Just to add insult to injury, I read a year or so ago that the average annual income for a composer (i.e. a member of a professional composer's organization) in Britain was something like £3,689. Here is the link.

The ideal, perhaps, might be a situation like Haydn's where you had to write new music on a weekly basis, but while that allowed you some room for innovation, there wasn't the appallingly heavy weight that is on a composer's shoulders today. Re-invent music? Today? Well, ok, but can I do it incrementally over my whole career and not from scratch with every piece?

There is a kind of ideology, hanging over from modernism, that pushes composers to do something at least somewhat outrageous with every piece--almost like the obsession in pop music a couple of years ago that every artist had to come up with a new dance-move. Twerking! Gangnam Style! Naked on a Wrecking Ball! For contemporary composers lately it seems to be how many new and exotic percussion instruments can you cram into your orchestral score?

The reason why composers are pretty much forced to be Artistes these days is interwoven with the complex history of music during the 19th and 20th centuries. Occasionally we run into one that does not seem to have forgotten the virtues of beauty and restraint.

This is the Symphony No. 1 (1951) by Henri Dutilleux (1916 - 2013):


john ward said...

Another great post Bryan, I agree and appreciate all of the links for further reading.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, John. Your other comment on the Enlightenment Values thread for some reason did not get posted, thought it did get sent to me. So I posted it for you.