Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Loneliness of the Composer

I was reading a post over at NewMusicBox where Rob Deemer notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US does not have a separate category for composers, lumping them in with music directors and with "jingle writers", arrangers and songwriters. There is even a rather depressing map included that purports to show "Employment of music directors and composers, by area, May 2012":

See all those white spaces? Utah, North and South Dakota, Nevada, Alaska--apparently these places simply have no composers. As for Canada, I can't even find similar data. There is a long list of Canadian composers (that seems to be missing a lot of names), on Wikipedia. But, as in the US, if we were to see the concentration by area, it would be heavily focused on Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver with little patches in places like Halifax, Winnipeg and Victoria. In the US, outside of New York and adjacent areas, and Los Angeles, composers would be thin on the ground--again, with patches in Boston, Chicago and a few other places.

Being a composer is not easy. The Guardian recently put up an interview with a very successful composer, Philip Glass, where he mentions that he wasn't able to make a living as a composer until he was into his forties! He says,
I didn't make a living until I was in my 40s – I did construction work, moved furniture, anything. Nobody makes you choose the life of an artist. We do it on our own, and we take our chances.
In some ways music chooses you, though for most people it is not quite as open-and-shut as it seems it was for Philip Glass. I'm sure all composers have doubts, but they likely rarely share them with others. Our image of people like Beethoven is that of an indomitable will that was unstoppable. We don't think of Beethoven, on the verge of, say, the Fifth Symphony, thinking to himself, "I just don't know if I can write another symphony... do I even have any more ideas..."

I'm afraid that the vast majority of composers in both the US and Canada are quietly employed in universities teaching composition and perhaps theory to generations of undergraduates. Occasionally they may actually get a local performance: perhaps a string quartet or trio plays a piece of chamber music. On a rare occasion, the orchestra may play a short piece by the local composer, likely never to be repeated. There is little public profile and no glory for the average composer.

By "average composer" I don't mean some know-nothing schlemiel who can't write decent music to save his life. No, I mean an actual, sincere composer, who recognizes the nature and challenge of music composition, who sees him or herself as part of that great tradition of composition in the West that goes back to those shadowy figures Leonin and Perotin, working at Notre Dame in Paris in the 12th century.

Composers like Philip Glass that have actually achieved an international reputation and are showered with commissions are rare as hen's teeth. We could probably count them on the fingers of our two hands. And compared to pop stars, even Philip Glass is a near-nonentity.

It's a lonely vocation, being a composer. In terms of your daily existence, probably not that different from a Trappist monk. You sit alone with your working materials day after day, seeking to discover and create something that will be worth hearing for listeners, something that, if not entirely new and original, will at least be a real expression of a human being with perhaps some new perspectives on the materials of music.

We don't reward these people with very much and some receive no reward at all, but without getting too melodramatic, theirs seems to me to be a fairly important slice of our culture.

Let's listen to some Philip Glass to close. This is the third movement of his Symphony No. 8:


Nathan Shirley said...

Hey I think I can see my house on that map!

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh! Is it in one of those big white patches?

Nathan Shirley said...

That's right. >30 is a little misleading, I think I'm the only one in my entire white patch.