HOW TO SURVIVE AND PROSPER AS REVEALED BY THE "NEWSLETTER NINE"
By Barton McLean
(Society of Composers, Inc. "Newsletter,"Vol 28 #7, August/Sept. '98)
An interpretive summary of the nine Independent Composer Profiles, prepared by Barton McLean
Although the path to an academic career is fairly well-defined, that of the successful professional composer outside of academia falls somewhere between a mystery, an enigma, and a black hole. It was this attempt at discovery, not only for my colleagues and their students in SCI but also because of my own curiosity, that I developed the series of nine profiles, choosing individuals in and out of SCI that I thought might be able to shed some insight. One common thread running through all profiles revealed the element of struggle. None of these people was born rich, and virtually all had to achieve success through their own talent, energy and vision. It was this element of struggle against often daunting odds that I found to be the most compelling thread running through so many of these stories.
The nine composers featured between the March '96 and the April '98 issues were, in no particular order, Carl Stone, Phillip Bimstein, Warren Burt, Tina Davidson, Julie Kabat, Byron Petty, Jin Hi Kim, Lois V Vierk, and Michael Hunt. All are, or were, existing as full-time paid career composers in their respective communities for a significant length of time. I deliberately avoided profiling what we might call the big "media star" independent composers, rather choosing to concentrate on those whose stories might resonate more authentically and realistically with most of us.
As I developed these profiles and worked with the individuals, I could not help but notice that certain characteristics pointing toward their success kept surfacing, from one composer to the next. And successful they are, as is noted by continued accolades after appearing in their profiles. For example, Warren Burt just received the most coveted award given to an Australian composer (he has joint citizenship), a $40,000 stipend each year for two years to compose whatever he wants. Phillip Bimstein just received a prestigious Meet the Composer New Residencies Grant, a 3-year $160,000 cash award (with additional in-kind benefits). In knowing these nine individuals and seeing all of them at work personally in various contexts, it was natural for me to be curious as to what makes them tick. Can it be distilled and bottled? Let's try and see.
Aside from composition itself, all nine had developed significant skills separate but related to composing prior to their breakout into self-sustaining careers. Of the nine, four had significant radio production skills as heads of nationally-syndicated or large metropolitan radio programs, and six had worked as arts administrators, either in conjunction with their own composition work or as full-time heads of organizations. A few had done some short - term teaching, but this was not a significant factor. The most universal skill, seen in all nine to a high degree, was that of music performance on an instrument, voice, or conducting or in combination. This was often an entrance point to the development of a career. The second most ubiquitous skill was that of media and technology. Interestingly, three composers spent considerable time accompanying and improvising for ballet and modern dance companies, a skill which led in these cases to commissions from those companies. Similarly, early employment as an opera coach has promoted many a composer's career (but not any of these).
Curiously, I could find no connection between formal music study, or lack thereof, and success. A few possessed music doctorates, some had no formal training in music to speak of (one came to music late in life from painting and poetry), and most were in the middle. Those who were farthest from formal music training were often the most knowledgeable and passionate about literature, art, and cross- cultural ideas, all of which infused their music. Those having more formal training showed this training in the solidity of their work.
At the beginning stages of their careers, almost any employment was taken, often not related to music at all. The typical case would be one of working, usually just long enough to survive and meet the basic needs (in Woolworth's Department Store, or as an office secretary), to be able to direct the energy to their music, slowly developing their craft, contacts, and self-confidence, while gradually shifting to the composition career as the main economic support system. This gradual shifting, developing relationships, skills, attending events where they would meet others who would help them, performing service for individuals or arts organizations, accepting ever larger commissions over a period of time, was revealed time and again in the nine profiles.
A strong recurring theme among most of the "nine" was what they had to give up in order to channel what resources they had into their art. For many, this meant avoiding marriage, family, or children. On the other hand, from knowing Julie Kabat and Tina Davidson, it is clear that they value their roles as mothers as being extremely important, even though they had to sacrifice even more to maintain both roles successfully. In fact, family was so important to Michael Hunt that at one point he gave up his professional composing career in order to better support his family with a "real job." The majority of the "nine" are not married, and mostly this has been a conscious career choice in order to be able to exist in their chosen field. There is no question that all nine had to give carefully considered thought to this issue, which, above almost all others, may determine whether or not one persists in this field. I know personally that a number of the "nine" have rather spartan life styles by our suburban standards, and I would place this characteristic among the most important -- that is, the ability to pare down one's material needs to the essentials of what is required for the career.
FOCUS AND UNIQUENESS
And then, at a certain stage of their lives, with the thought that they can burn their bridges behind them to exist as full-time composers, they often would undergo some sacrifice in living style in order to focus on their music and forgo other employment. This is what stands out--their ability to focus on their unique vision, to the lessening of all other priorities. Make no mistake about it ... all of these individuals are unusually passionate about their work, and have the ability to turn ordinary contacts and events into fodder for their creative minds. But without something very special to say, this focus might not be very valuable. And so the companion characteristic to extreme focus is ... uniqueness. This is the ability to hear a composer's name and instantly be able to recall a set of characteristics which makes this creative force stand out ... that separates it from any other. You may not necessarily like what you hear (or you may love it!), but you certainly can recognize it as being unique ... a strong individual personality behind the work.
THE BIG BREAK
A few of the composers related one important event that raised their career immediately to a self-sustaining plateau. Two of these mentioned a commission by the Kronos Quartet. Others mentioned the Readers Digest Commissioning Project and the Meet the Composer residency and commissioning grants. Still others, the majority I think, found no single event that would raise them up to another level, but rather found their careers progressing gradually from one step to another.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION?
But many stated that, big break or not, it was important to be in the right place at the right time. This may be a physical place (some mentioned New York, others the Bay Area) or a conceptual one. Jin Hi Kim and Lois V Vierk mentioned attendance and participation in New Music America, Bang on a Can, and other similar festivals as events in which critical mass produced contacts and opportunities. Phillip Bimstein mentioned that his sense of place, the canyon country of Utah, was absolutely critical to his uniqueness of the concept of his current work, and that he was greatly influenced by his surroundings and chose to compose there at this time because of them. It seems that "location" has two meanings for these people. First, the idea of critical mass of contacts provided by often the largest metropolitan areas, and second the idea of the place itself as central and inseparable to the creative idea. Sometime these two senses of "place" are in conflict, sometime they are reinforcing. But it is clear to me that a successful career composer has to have one reason or the other for choosing his/her location. To have neither is to strike out.
Virtually everyone mentioned the importance of working with other artists, performers, composers, dancers, music clubs, and ensembles as crucial to their success. The idea of mentoring was also very crucial to their careers as they worked with older individuals who helped open doors. A path toward success often can be shortened by someone who knows the way.
Implicit in everything we have said so far is the existence of an infrastructure within which a composer can move, relate, make contacts, achieve performances, and realize income. To many of us, our own SCI is a ready-made infrastructure, as is the university community within which we operate, either as staff, adjuncts, or students. Consequently many of us do not think as consciously about infrastructure as do the professional composers among us who need to make a living by finding and creating career/performance/income relationships. As supportive as the SCI infrastructure is to many of us (including myself), to date it has not accomplished a great deal in producing professional composition income, nor has it intended to. In terms of career, SCI is more important in advancing the academic career than the professional one outside academia. And so it is not surprising that more professional career composers existing outside the university do not join SCI, but rather place their energies in finding and creating their own personal career infrastructures. In defense of SCI, we have recently developed an interesting area of Fiscal Sponsorship and its relationship to the development of Local Chapters that has the potential of significantly expanding the sense of infrastructure to a much wider group of composers, helping them to realize income and expand infrastructure support. It is an open question as to whether this will work, but stay tuned. We are hopeful at this point.
In any case, to read the profiles of Byron Petty, Lois V Vierk and Michael Hunt is to absorb textbook cases of how to create and discover infrastructures that can be of significant and even crucial help to a self-sustaining composition career. It is clear, in reading between the lines here, that one can simply not exist as an independent composer without a good infrastructure in place, an extended family, so to speak, that will enable one to realize continuous performance, audience, and income.
GRANTS, RESIDENCIES, CONTESTS, CALLS FOR SCORES, AND OTHER WAYS TO SPEND ONE'S LEISURE TIME
Of the categories mentioned above, only the first two were deemed of significance in forging a professional independent career. Of the first category, the "Newsletter Nine" were formed into two equal camps. One half applied directly and in fact developed considerable skill in writing grant applications. The others managed to somehow hook onto agents or arts administrators or colleagues who would do the grant writing. It seems that some composers are well-suited to this activity and other are just not. In many cases the receipt of grants provided a crucial element in the ability of the composer to continue along the chosen path. Grants are very important. Similarly, composer residencies figured prominently in the stable of awards received by many of the profiles. On the other hand, contests and calls for scores were just about universally scorned as events which had little or no bearing on the establishment of the professional career. I am certain about this since I asked each one of them to comment directly on this area. Our own personal experience bears this out as well. The problem as I see it is that, although contests and calls for scores will in some cases result in performances, there are two problems with this method of career advancement. First, the amount of expense and effort necessary is way out of proportion to the results one is likely to achieve, and second, once a contest or call for scores is announced, the promoter is literally overwhelmed with material. As Byron Petty said (and I'll paraphrase it for a little more kick) "Don't submit, but rather initiate." The effort in finding one's own sources of performance and locating funding not yet discovered by others is far more cost-effective and successful than joining the contest and call-for- scores herd. And that is why so many of the "nine" commented negatively on these two areas of promoting their music. To read their profiles is to realize how creative one must be, not only in the work itself, but also in finding sources of funding, performers, conductors, and venues that have not been discovered by the "call for scores" masses. "Initiate, initiate, initiate."
ADVICE FROM THE HORSES' MOUTHS
Each composer was asked to give a favorite bit of advice in the profiles. I close by excerpting a few of them.
MICHAEL HUNT: "Learn as much about as many different kinds of music as possible ... be as flexible as possible ... make the time to take some business courses."
LOIS V VIERK: "I can only advise being single-minded about what you do. Insist on what you need to work and to live a fulfilling life, and be willing to let go of other things."
CARL STONE: "Be honest, do your best, don't take any job that you wouldn't be proud to attach your name to."
PHILLIP KENT BIMSTEIN (commenting on being mayor and composer at the same time) "In either case, the challenge is to find satisfying ways for different voices to blend. Politically, it pays to know that dissonant notes have value and that even opposites can be orchestrated together. As a community we're engaged in a collaborative composition. If we do it right, a good work emerges, a constantly evolving composition."
WARREN BURT: 1) Think globally, act locally. 2) Diversify! 3) Don't lose your dream.
TINA DAVIDSON: Being an independent composer is risky and scary -- there is no doubt about that -- but to have time not only to compose, but also to sit, as I do in the afternoon, and to think, inform myself, to dream and remember -- that is the real gift of the independent composer's life."
JULIE KABAT: "Ask, 'What are you passionate about?' Allow yourself to be surprised."
BYRON PETTY: "Initiate ... Treat every opportunity, large and small, with a professional demeanor. Join professional organizations. ... There can be no room for shyness... Never lose your passion for the art."
JIN HI KIM: "I follow my intuition and go for my mission and believe the positive result. Being persistent is good for your goal, but everything has its own time and place to be recognized by others. You also have to wait until then."
I hope that some of the readers might revisit the full versions of these profiles (along with the excellent ones done by David Gompper and others at the same time) in the last two years of the Newsletter. Taken all together, I think they form a textbook of how one might thread a way through the thicket of cultural indifference to the numerous and growing pockets of real support blossoming throughout our country. As we all struggle with these ideas, perhaps I can add my own favorite bits of advice:
• Have something unique and important to say.
• Focus and persist.
• Be kind and supportive to your fellow composers. What goes around comes around. Refuse to allow others to define your own creative vision.
• Don't submit (scores, tapes, etc.) -- initiate!
C 1998 Barton McLean