Thursday 25 October 2012

My friend Joan Watson recently asked me for a "top 10" list of things a grad school composer needs to be successful as a professional composer.  This is what I sent to her.

1. Talent. You must be born with the talent to compose. Anyone can learn to compose acceptably, and moderately talented people can become better composers, but no one can actually make you a great composer if you don't have the talent to start with.

2. Skill. Composers must acquire every skill possible. There is no such thing as an “unnecessary” skill, and there is no such thing as “unnecessary” knowledge. Performers learn scales and arpeggios, etc., and the equivalents exist for composers. The acquisition of skill never ends. Good composers continue to learn and explore through their entire lives.

3. Passion. No one needs another composer. If you are not driven to be one, quit now. If someone can stop you from composing, you are not a composer. If you compose music only for class assignments while you are in school, you are not a composer. If you are perfectly happy with the music you are writing now and don't feel the need to change, you are not a composer.

4. Love of music. Listen to music. Know some music. Know standard repertoire. Explore unusual repertoire. Perform. Go to concerts. If you hear something you like, sit down at the piano and try to re-create it. Get a score and look at it. Try to figure out how the composer did what he did. Be involved with the music that already exists, because it is your best teacher. Many people, even some professional composers and teachers, insist that traditional repertoire is redundant, and that computers have made training in traditional repertoire unnecessary. This is not true. No great music will ever be written by someone ignorant of tradition. Ever. I guarantee it.

5. Flexibility. Learn to adapt, musically and personally. All great artists change through their careers. Not one great composer worked in one and only one language-- they all grew and re-invented themselves. Don't ever shut out a process or style because you don't “like” it. Every language and style is potentially a resource. You do not know who you are going to be 30 years from now, so you need to build the tools to support whoever that person will be.

6. Flexibility. Take whatever opportunities come your way. If you are flexible in the way item 5 implies, you also need to cultivate professional flexibility. If someone asks you compose Country and Western music for a play or film, do it. If someone asks you to write a ceremonial piece for accordion, bagpipes, and bass drum, do it. You will learn and grow. Do it for free, if necessary.

7. Humility. Great things have come before you. Great people have come before you. Respect them. Never put yourself before the art of music. Never use the art of music to aggrandize yourself. Serve the art-- do not try to make the art serve you.

8. Make an effort to be a complete human being. Art does not grow in a vacuum. The best artists are interested in everything. All the other art forms, religion, science, and philosophy are there to help you grow as a human being. The world is a fascinating place, and human beings are complex and extremely detailed. This is the well-spring of art.

9. Mentorship. No composer achieves anything unless someone believes in them. Select your teachers wisely, out of respect and commitment. Good teachers mentor their students beyond the basic process of instruction. Performers can also be mentors. And when you achieve success, take your responsibility to be a mentor to younger composers very seriously.

10. Luck. There are many people who can do the job-- not everyone who can do the job gets asked to do it.

Saturday 20 October 2012

The medium experience

I have been thinking a great deal lately about movies, because I love movies, and yet, like many people, take them for granted.  Even a cheap indy movie these days costs more than a million dollars.  And, like any piece of music, each and every detail on the screen is there because someone decided to put it there.  Even bad movies are made carefully and deliberately.

But the thing that has struck me lately is that there seem to be three kinds of movies:  ones that are immediately successful, ones that don't impress me one way or the other, and ones that are clearly bad.  The ones that don't impress or repel are what I have been thinking about.

Take a movie like "Outland", a Peter Hyams sci-fi from 1981, starring Sean Connery.  Here was a movie that opened to very mediocre reviews, and still commands just a 58% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Right from the beginning, I considered this to be an okay movie, neither a masterpiece nor a waste of time.  Over the many years we have watched and re-watched it, my respect for it has grown.  We watched it the other night, now that it has been released properly on Blu Ray.  Guess what?  It's a really good movie.

Some movies jump off the screen so positively that we don't dispute their value, at least initially.  With time, we start to question why we liked them.  "Casino Royale" is a movie that will, with time, come to be seen as actually quite a mediocre movie with many script problems.  I believe the same will happen with the current Batman movies.  I doubt that any such movie would drop completely out of sight, but we do re-evaluate them and gradually give them their rightful place.

Some movies seem so bad when we see them that there doesn't seem to be a question about it.  Of course, this is a matter of taste.  But movies which have obvious technical flaws, obvious bad acting, continuity problems, abominable scores, incompetent editing, etc., rarely, if ever, rise about these problems as time passes.  I can't think of one which has.

But remember the story of "Blade Runner", a commercial and critical failure when released, now regarded almost universally as a masterpiece.  "Blade Runner" was a "medium" experience, falling between the cracks of "good" and "bad" when it came out, which, with time, has come more and more into focus.  The details of the movie, the mood, the lighting, music, and yes, Rutger Hauer, have gradually convinced us that this is the real thing, an "important" movie.

Why didn't we recognize that when it came out?

Art is a construct, and all art, from the deceptively simple canvases of Rothko to the incomprehensible gibberish of Pound's "Cantos", is built on deliberate detail.  The artist put those things there on purpose.  Even Pollock's experiments with the random are done with intention, and with the instinctive eye of the painter.  Improvised music does not come from nowhere, it comes from the memory and instincts of the performers.

Art is detail (among other things), and we seem to be completely incapable of absorbing all the detail upon first exposure to a work of art.  I have always said that it is preposterous for critics to enter a theatre, encounter new work without preparing (by reading a script, or looking at a score, etc.,) and write a review.  I am a professional musician, and there is a great deal of music to which my initial reaction has been rather cool, which I have gradually learned to respect and even like.  I am not talking about works which seem like masterpieces upon first exposure (which are very, very rare,) but about the "medium" works, the works which don't lift you out of your seat on first encounter.

In some ways, isn't this music (and film and art and theatre and books) more important than the "masterpieces"?  Isn't art supposed to change you?  Isn't the gradual understanding and absorption of a work of art more important to our spiritual life than jumping to our feet at the end of the latest trendy "masterpiece"?

Perhaps I am thinking about this because, in addition to watching older movies lately, I am teaching a course on Alternatives, music which espouses different values from the accepted canon.  And one of the composers I have focused on is Busoni, whose work I have adored since the age of 13.  Alfred Brendel said of Busoni "His music glows when the right eyes fall upon it."  I completely understand why people don't like Busoni's music, but with the passage of time, I have come to realize that his music has probably had more influence on the way I write music than any other composer I have listened to in my life.

And for most people, Busoni's music is a "medium" experience.