Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Even Great Composers Can Write Flops

In an earlier blog that touched on the issue of fear of failure, I wrote that "all great composers have had bad reviews, been harshly received by members of the public and/or their family, and many have been told been told their music is unplayable.  In spite of this, they went on to greatness."

For today's blog, I decided to research the topic of compositional "flops," a term I define below.

Stephen Sondheim is, by any measure, one of the all-time great composers and lyricists of musical theatre, and yet Anyone Can Whistle (1964) closed after only 9 performances, and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), had only 16-performances.

Have you heard of Galt MacDermott? He is Canadian (b. 1928), and the composer of the wildly-successful, period-defining musical, Hair (1967). Another successful Broadway production of his was Two Gentlemen  of Verona (1971), which won the Tony award for best musical that year. He also did the music for Via Galactica (1973), which closed after seven performances.

The history of musical theatre includes many flops by otherwise successful composers. Rodgers and Hammerstein — creators of many of the most successful Broadway musicals, such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Sound of Music, The King and I, and South Pacific — created Pipe Dream (1955), described as "a flop and a financial disaster" by Wikipedia, and others. It closed after 246 performances — which may seem like a pretty good run, except it was "the shortest run of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and their only show to lose money and not go on tour." Breakfast at Tiffany's (1966), by Bob Merrill and Edward Albee (both extremely successful), closed after only four previews, despite having a cast that included Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Chamberlain, and Sally Kellerman. The Rocky Horror Show (1975) closed after only 45 performances on Broadway (although it did well in London and other venues). The film adaptation (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) did poorly when it opened, but went on to become a cult classic.

A reversal of this last example is Disney's Newsies, a 1992 film described by the L. A. Times as "one of the year's biggest flops." The music was by Alan Menken, composer of some fairly successful (!) film musicals, such as Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin,  The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, and many, many others. Menken won an Academy Award for Aladdin the same year (1992) as he won a Razzie for "worst song of the year" for Newsies. Ouch! When the movie was reworked into a Broadway musical twenty years later, with songs from the original movie as well as new numbers, all by Menken, it became a smash hit.

Beethoven is possibly the best-known classical composer that ever lived; surely he must not have written any flops! And yet, he worked on his Violin Concerto in C when he was a young man, and either never finished it, or did finish it, but it was never performed.
This brings up an important point: What exactly is a flop? If a composer fails to finish a work, does that make it a flop?  
I think of a flop as a completed work that was received badly by the public and/or critics, and, as a consequence, did not fare well, at least initially.
Let us set aside the Violin Concerto in C, and consider Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, which he did finish. Unfortunately, it got off to a bad start; according to Wikipedia, "the premiere was not a success, and the concerto was little performed in the following decades." Beethoven died thinking his Violin Concerto had been unsuccessful. It was revived seventeen years after his death in a performance by a 12-year old violinist, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, and went on to become a staple of the classical music repertoire.

Fidelio (1805), Beethoven's only opera, was also the largest work he had composed at the time. It suffered several delays during composition, one of which arose from objections raised by the Austrian censor, and finally premiered in November 1805 to houses that were nearly empty because of the French occupation of the city. Wikipedia tells us that, "in addition to being a financial failure, this version of Fidelio was also a critical failure, and Beethoven began revising it." The next revision (1806) was also unsuccessful, but the last one, in 1814, was finally well received.

The Paris version of Wagner's Tannhäuser (1861; original Dresden version completed in 1845) was an expensive flop, closing after three performances, this after 164 rehearsals. The performances were belligerently disrupted by members of a claque called The Jockey Club, which had unsuccessfully tried to extort Wagner into paying them off to prevent these disruptions. They were also displeased that it had a ballet in the first act, because they held the strong conviction that ballets in operas should only be in the second act, which allowed them to arrive late for shows and still catch the ballet, for them the highlight of any opera.

There are many more examples of compositions that did not fare well, at least initially, by highly-regarded composers, but there are also countless examples of people working in other fields who experienced failure in their lives, and yet managed to overcome it.
  • Vincent Van Gogh created 860 paintings, but only one was sold during his lifetime.
  • Emily Dickinson published fewer than a dozen of her 1,800 poems during her lifetime.
  • Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was refused by "at least 20" publishers.
And then there are people who used failure to spur them onto success in other fields:
  • Vera Wang competed at the 1968 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but failed to make the US Olympic team; she then switched careers and entered the fashion industry.
  • Steve Jobs was the cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. He was dismissed by Apple in 1985 following an unsuccessful power struggle with its board of directors; you can probably imagine how gutted he felt by this experience. He then went on to found a new computer company, NeXT, which made better computers than those being produced by Apple. NeXT was moderately successful, but caught the attention of Apple, and in 1996 Apple bought the NeXTSTEP platform and used it as the basis of its highly-successful OS X. This led to Jobs coming back to Apple as an advisor, and in 1998 he was once again given control of the company, bringing Apple back from near-bankruptcy to become the world's most valuable publicly-traded company in 2011.
  • And that is not all; after being fired by Apple, Jobs acquired Pixar for $10 million in 1986 and became its CEO. Pixar went on to produce some of the most commercially and critically successful animated films of all time, such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Wall-E. In 2006 Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.6 billion.

The point of all these stories is that almost everyone experiences failure on some level at various points in their lives, including highly-successful people. Setbacks are a normal part of life, and especially of the creative process; try to learn from them, and push past them, but never let them define you.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On the Value of Living Composers

Sound and Music, an English organization "committed to supporting new music and developing the audience for it," published results of its Composer Commissioning Survey, conducted during June-July of 2014. Three quarters of the respondents were based in the UK. Here is a summary of their findings, in (mostly) their own words:

Commissions are not a significant income source for a lot of composers.
  • 66% of composers stated that they do not find commissions to be a significant proportion of their income. Given that the respondents had an average of 2.65 commissions in 2013 with an average fee per commission of £1,392 it is easy to see why. 
There is a lot of a variance within the pay scale for commissions.
  • Annual income for 2013 from commissions ranged from £1 to over £100,000 including the single highest paying commission at £60,000. 
  • The best-paid 1% of composers received over 25% of all commission income; once we excluded them from our sample, average commission income fell from £3,689 to £2,717.
  • Over 40% of composers stated that they had earned no income at all from commissions for 2013.
The conditions for commissions are worse than before.
  • 49% of composers feel that there is less rehearsal/preparation time for new works. 
Although there appear to be more commissions available, they appear to be paying less well.
  • 74% of composers received the same amount or more commissions in 2013 than in 2012 but only 15% earned more income.

What does this mean?

The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper, did a story on this survey, and this was their headline, followed by a couple of excerpts from the article:

The future of new music is at risk if we continue to undervalue composers
Professional composers are being asked to create new pieces for ‘shockingly low’ fees, Sound and Music report finds
"If we believe that music is a living artform then it stands to reason that the creation of new music is vital to its current and future health. However, professional composers are being asked to create new music for very little money in conditions that are too often inadequate. As a sector we have some hard questions to ask ourselves about our priorities. Being commissioned to create a new work (and getting paid for it) is a vital part of life as a professional composer. At Sound and Music, the national agency for new music, we continue to receive anecdotal evidence about the worsening environment for the creation of new music."
"What the evidence implies is that the work of composers (and composing as a profession) is valued far less by the sector than that of performers, conductors and administrators. How can that be right when it is the music itself that communicates with audiences? With a new generation seeking out beautiful and unusual new sounds and experiences, audiences for new music have never been more enthusiastic."

What are your thoughts on any of these points? More specifically,
  1. The above excerpts suggest that living composers, as a rule (although there are very famous exceptions), are undervalued. Do you agree?
  2. Is the future of new classical music "at risk?"
  3. Is the creation of new music vital to the "current and future health" of classical music?
  4. Why are 99% of composers paid so poorly? 
  5. Within the 1% of top-earning composers surveyed (the 1% that garnered 25% of the total commissioning fund pool), how many of them do you think are able to support themselves entirely from composing?
  6. Why are most professional music administrators, orchestra musicians, and conductors paid so much more than almost all composers?
  7. Does any of this matter? Should composers just "suck it up" and be grateful for any remunerative crumbs that come their way? 
  8. Should composers take a pragmatic, "it is what it is" attitude, accepting that they are unlikely to earn a sustainable living from composing alone, and therefore find other means of employment?
  9. Should composers engage in advocacy to create better working conditions? Are there any organizations that advocate for composers?
  10. If composers are undervalued, what are the reasons for this? Do composers bear any responsibility for finding themselves in this predicament?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Daring to Dream Big

Today's post was inspired by a family trip to Disney World last summer, a place where the word "dreams" is a kind of idée fixe. Among the countless references to this word are a "Dreams Come True" parade, a "Dream Along With Mickey" show, "One Man's Dream" (a pavilion celebrating the life of Walt Disney), and many promotions and commercials that use the word "dream." There is also a Disney cruise ship called "Disney Dream."

Disney marketers and imagineers clearly believe that the public is attracted by the idea of following our dream, but what are the risks and rewards of doing so, and, in particular, of daring to dream "big" dreams?

There is much encouragement to fearlessly follow our dreams in songs, movies, biographies, interviews, etc. — wildly successful people are often said to have done so — but what about people whose life experiences have been more like those of Wile E. Coyote (see below; a lifetime of frustration, aided largely by his misplaced faith in faulty products found in the Acme Co. catalog, followed by the cancellation of his show) or Charlie Brown (who, according to Wikipedia's description, "fails in almost everything he does"), than Walt Disney's or Bill Gates'? Don't big dreams lead to big disappointments?

An ill-conceived plan; this will not end well. 
For Wile E. Coyote, they never do.

For Charlie Brown, life can sometimes feel like an endless series of disappointments.

Well, for me the answer is obvious: Big dreams can lead to big disappointments, but that doesn't mean we should not have them.

Just to be clear, by “dreams,” I mean aspirations or goals, as opposed to the reveries we all have  during REM state while sleeping, which we often don’t remember). And by "big," I mean lofty aspirations, such as wanting to become ridiculously rich, wanting to be the King of Iceland (bad news: Iceland's monarchy ended in 1944. But who knows, maybe they'll bring it back for you!), or wanting to become a great composer, and recognized as such.

Walt Disney supposedly said, All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them, and if you can dream it, you can do it.

(These quotes are attributed to Disney frequently on the Internet, and they are found in How to Be Like Walt; Capturing the Magic Every Day of Your Life (2004) by Pat Williams; however I have yet to find when, where, and in what context these statements were made, making me wonder if he actually said them, or if an awful lot of people wish he had said them.)

As mentioned in my opening paragraph, daring to follow your dreams is promoted as a core belief at Disney theme parks and in many Disney movies. This advice is summed up nicely in the following song, by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, from Walt Disney's 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio.

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do

Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true

Of course, this is not just a Disney message; many others have expressed similar sentiments:
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.
Eleanor Roosevelt
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.
Harriet Tubman 
If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
Henry David Thoreau

But before we all quit our day-jobs and head off to Hollywood, we need to ask ourselves whether it is wise to dream big. Here are some quotes that may give you pause:
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
Oscar Wilde 
A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.
John Barrymore
He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher... or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.
Douglas Adams
Dreams will get you nowhere, a good kick in the pants will take you a long way.
Baltasar Gracian
Take everything easy and quit dreaming and brooding and you will be well guarded from a thousand evils.
Amy Lowell
When younger writers and poets, musicians and painters are weakened by a stemming of funds, they come to me saddened, not as full of dreams and excitement and ideas. I am then weakened and diminished, and made less rich.
Maya Angelou
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
J. K. Rowling
The last four quotes above (highlighted) are particularly sobering; they articulate the dilemma with which we all must wrestle:
While it is probably true that many or even most great things could not have been achieved without big dreams, it is also true that most dreams do not come to fruition, and indeed, the loftier the dream, the lower the likelihood of its coming to pass, and the greater the potential disappointment.

There have been at least ten different songs — as well as a television series, a film, a painting, and a book — with the title, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."

Broken dreams — dashed hopes — is cleary a concept that resonates for many people, just as the more hopeful Disney quotations above also resonate for many, presumably because we all have had aspirations of varying magnitudes during the course of our lives, but we have all experienced deep disappointments along the way as well; we have all felt both optimism and dismay at different times.

We must all learn to navigate between chasing lofty dreams and pragmatism, but my advice for all composers is to go ahead and dream as big as you wish, because you are unlikely to find much success without first dreaming of it.

However, greatness in composition does not result from luck, like winning a lottery; it is the product of years of hard work, critical thinking, thinking outside and inside boxes, a positive attitude in the face of rejections, and many other factors, some of which I have discussed in previous posts. Luck can play a part as well, especially in terms of one's success as a composer — composers are sometimes "championed" by music directors and conductors, for example — but even in cases like these, you have to be good to be lucky, as the sports saying goes.

So, go ahead and dream big, but be prepared to put in a lot of hard work along the way. Be pragmatic at least some of the time, because we need to provide our basic needs (food, shelter, clothing), but be aware that too much pragmatism can be a dream-killer; a highly-pragmatic person might decide to abandon their dream in favour of a more "realistic"or achievable goal, and, while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, nobody would ever achieve their dream if we all felt this way.

Also, in case it is any consolation, failure to achieve one dream can lead to success in a different one.

Here's a chart that I had fun with; the statements on the "pro" side (left column) are arguments in favour of pursuing one's dream, with counter-arguments represented on the right column. See which statements you agree with:

Some Pros and Cons of Dreaming Big Dreams
• Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

• Nothing great was ever achieved without first dreaming of it (me, paraphrasing Emerson)

• Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true (Emerson)
• The greater our enthusiasm, the more catastrophic the pain we feel when something does not work out

• The greater the dream, the less likely it is to come true. Dream of small  achievements, like finding a good parking spot, and you won't be too disappointed.

• You are unlikely to make your dreams come true unless you dream of small things, like finding a good parking spot, or beating the boss level in a video game.
• When you have a dream, and follow that dream, you will gain from the experience, no matter the outcome (me)

• Pain, disappointment, and frustration are all experiences from which we can learn

• That which does not kill us makes us stronger (Neitzsche)

• Yeah, you'll gain pain, that's the only guaranteed outcome of following a dream!

• This is what I have learned from pain, disappointment, and frustration: I do not like them; therefore I choose a path that is likely to produce a negative result

• Neitzsche alienated many during his life, and became become "effectively unemployable… The subsequent "feelings of revenge and resentment" embittered him," (Wikipedia: Nietzsche) and he eventually went mad. This would seem to negate his statement in the left column.
• All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them (Disney)• This is self-evidently ridiculous, but in case you feel otherwise, here is why: Even if your dreams have no imagination whatsoever, like aspiring to find a good parking spot when you go shopping, there will be times when your dreams do not come true. You may have to park a long way from your favourite mall entrance during the Christmas rush. The store may be sold out of the item you really want. Your favourite restaurant may take your favourite dish off the menu. And if your dreams are loftier than this, there is a greater probability that at least some (and probably most) will not come true.
• Did Disney even say this, or is this something that the Disney Corporation wants you to believe while visiting their theme parks, presumably so that you will spend lots of money making sure your kids' dreams are not dashed?
We are all resilient, to varying degrees. Yes, following a dream can lead to profound disappointment, and even leave us feeling crushed; however, we have it in us to bounce back and try again, possibly a little wiser from experiencing the setback

• Not only are we resilient, we are adaptable; if, after working at it for some time, we conclude that our dream is unattainable, we can re-think our dream and come up with another one. Frequently "dream B" (or dream "C," "D," "E," etc.) succeeds in a way that exceeds our wildest hopes for "dream A" 
• Some people are more resilient than others. We all have a pain limit… If chasing a dream fails repeatedly, and the pain of it all becomes too much to bear, perhaps we should stop chasing that dream

• Well, if you conclude that "dream A" will not work out, or if you conclude that to continue pursuing it is resulting in more pain and frustration than you can bear, do you really want to open yourself up to more of the same by chasing "dream B," "C," and "D?"
• There is no path in life that is devoid of pain, frustration, and disappointment. Yes, following your dream can (and likely will) lead to negative experiences, but to think you can avoid them completely by following another path is foolish. So, if these are a given in life, why not experience them pursuing your dream, instead of following a "safer" path that you don't really want to be on?• Some paths have a significantly-lower probability of success than others. If my dream is to become a huge Broadway star — the next Idina Menzel — and I find myself reduced to doing poorly-paying sporadic dinner theatre shows to bored audiences in suburbia twenty years from now, I don't think I would be very happy. There is a time to admit when your plans are not likely to lead to a positive outcome, and come up with more realistic plans
Conclusion: The decision of whether (and for how long) to follow your dream, or to modify your expectations and pursue something else is something with which all artists (and probably many other people too) struggle, and it is a decision we must all work out for ourselves. 
• I actually agree with many of the points on either side of the above, "pros and cons" chart. I think it's good to have a dream, and to overcome any fears that may be preventing you from pursuing your dream. 

• I also think it's important to be grounded in reality at least some of the time (acknowledging that different people have different realities), and be considering other options if option A is not working. 
    I have met successful business people who told me their dream had been to become a musician, but they abandoned it to go to business school when it became apparent to them that their dream was not panning out. The people I met didn't seem to regret their decision at all, presumably because they found success in another area of life, and I think this is fairly common. 
       But part of my motivation in sticking with my dream of becoming a composer was the worry that if I didn't go after my dream I would regret it later in life. I don't know if I actually would have regretted it or not, of course — in retrospect, I think I might have been content in other pursuits as well — but I didn't want to become a bitter old man, regretting the things he didn't do in his life, so I stuck with my goal, despite frequent doubts as to the wisdom/practicality of this goal, and luckily, things worked out. So far…

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Musical Genius

Many of the composers whose music we study and hear are referred to as musical geniuses. I did a Google search for “music genius” and got 142 million results, which suggests that a lot of people use this expression! But what does it mean? And if we do not regard ourselves as musical geniuses, can we aspire to become great composers?

In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir’s wrote: “One is not born a genius; one becomes a genius;” perhaps one could hope to one day attain this lofty status, but before going further, it would be useful to explore the meaning of this term.

On a side note, the continuation of de Beauvoir's sentence is, “and the feminine situation has up to the present rendered this becoming practically impossible.” This (i.e., sexism, as it applies to music) seems an important topic to tackle in a future blog.

What does it mean, exactly?

The term “genius” is is much-used, but lacks a precise definition. Wikipedia tells us that “the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate” (Genius. (n.d.). Retrieved 13 Jan. 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genius). When someone refers to a composer (or anyone) as a genius, we don't exactly know what they mean. Perhaps they regard the composer as being very smart, but since we are talking about a composer and not, say, a theoretical physicist (like Einstein), how are we to know how smart they were?

One understanding of genius relates to intelligence, and specifically to someone of exceptional intelligence. But "intelligence" is a similarly-imprecise concept; IQ tests are designed to measure it, but, as this article tells us,  their validity has been challenged by many. And besides, if we call Bach a genius, it seems unlikely that we do so because we believe Bach would have scored extremely highly on an IQ test (although one can speculate about this possibility); we are presumably referring to his musical genius. But what does "musical genius" mean?

Possibly it means that we are impressed by the great quantity of well-crafted music Bach wrote, and that we find his music profoundly moving, on a level that few have been able to match in musical history. If you have studied counterpoint and tried writing a fugue, you know how difficult it can be to write a good one; if you analyze Bach fugues after having tried writing them, you will almost certainly be blown away by how inventive, and beautiful they are. You might therefore conclude that Bach was extraordinarily clever, and, on that basis alone, label him as a musical genius.

I don’t have a problem with someone holding Bach (or Palestrina, Beethoven, Bartok, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Burt Bacharach, etc.) in such high regard — the more I learn about music, the more impressed I am by the achievements of great musicians in all genres — but I’m just not sure that we all mean the same thing when we call composers geniuses; as stated earlier, the term lacks a generally-agreed-upon, precise definition.

So why do people persist on using this term? My guess, at least as it is used in music, is that it is a way of accounting for qualities that the writer/teacher/blowhard-in-a-bar/etc. is otherwise unable to account for. Perhaps, when we call a composer a genius, we are saying, “I can’t imagine ever having the skill to produce music that is so profoundly moving (or so darned clever, or so vexingly incomprehensible, etc.), and therefore Palestrina (or Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, etc.) was a genius, and you and I are not. Or at least I are not!”

Becoming a genius, in 3 E-Z Steps! 
  1. Work hard (practice). Now work harder!
  2. Be smart.
  3. Find a supportive environment.

Okay, the "3 E-Z Steps" towards genius-hood is tongue-in-cheek, but whether we regard individuals a musical geniuses or not, mastery of music has always been the result of hard work for extended periods (usually decades), with good teachers, familial/community support, AND perhaps above-average intelligence as well. This is an idea suggested by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, in a Psychology Today article entitled: Attaining musical genius: Is practice enough? (17 June 2008), who writes:
“While Mozart may have required lots and lots of practice to produce his great works, his high intellect may have also contributed to his musical genius,”
Kaufman cites a 2007 article by J. Ruthsatz, D. Detterman, W.S. Griscom, and B.A. Cirullo, Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice, whose conclusion may be neatly summarized as follows:

Musical achievement = general intelligence + domain-specific skills + practice

In other words, practice is an essential ingredient, but so are intelligence and "domain-specific" skills. Which you probably knew…

Here's another quote by someone who supports and neatly summarizes this view: “I was intrigued by this term "genius", because as far as I can see it is completely useless,” said Phil Grabsky, director of a feature-length documentary, In Search of Mozart. “What the characters we sometimes call geniuses have in common is drive and determination, often good parenting, and the fact that they are products of the social conditions of their time,' he said. 'All of this was true for Mozart. His talent wasn't simply a gift from God, it was the result of tremendously hard work.” (Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/jan/01/arts.music)

…To which I would add, yes, it wasn't "simply a gift from God," but Mozart's talent wasn't just the result of "tremendously hard work" either; not everyone who trains diligently for, say, 10,000 hours, ends up producing work of comparable quality to Mozart's.

→ If this topic interests you, you might enjoy this blog post: "Talent? Skill? What's the Difference?"

Do you have to be a genius to understand how great music works?

Here's some good news: You do not need to be a genius to understand how great compositions work; you just have to make a concerted effort to do this, which develops analytical skills. Indeed, this is one of the main objectives of many music theory courses. Not understanding how a composition works may be the result of not having worked sufficiently to do so, or simply not having developed the skills to do so, rather than being caused by the composition operating on a plane so high that it defies understanding by ordinary mortals. That said, I'm pretty sure that some composers in the 1950's set out to deliberately write music so complex that it challenged the comprehension of ordinary mortals, but that's a topic for a different day.

Do you have to be a genius to compose great music? 

Aside from the fact that the term "musical genius" does not have a generally-agreed-upon meaning (or even, if you agree with the Grabsky quote above, has no meaning), I see it as a problematic term in that it can discourage those who do not see themselves as geniuses from attempting to develop their compositional skills. "Great music was composed by musical geniuses," you might think; "so what chance do I have of ever writing great music, if I am not a genius?"

If such a thought has ever crossed your mind, it might help to be aware of this:
Great composers wrote a lot of not-great music on their way to writing great music. The learning curve for mastery of composition is steep, and every great composer that ever lived took years to develop their "greatness," and it will be no different for you.
"Ah, but what of Mozart," you may ask; "didn't he write great music when he was four, or five, or six?" Answers: No, and no, and no. I discussed this at greater length in "Talent, Skill; What's the Difference?" (apologies for two plugs in one blog post!), but to summarize, although Mozart was indeed a clever and talented youngster, I'm not sure anyone regards music he wrote in the first 17 years of his life as great. Greatness came later. Former New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg went so far as to call Mozart a late bloomer (i'm paraphrasing; he actually wrote that Mozart "developed late"), arguing that few of Mozart's early works, elegant as they are, have the personality , concentration, and richness that entered his music after 1781" [the year he turned 25]. (Lives of the Great Composers, Part 2, p. 103).

It is nevertheless true that some composers —notably Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saëns— manifested great compositional talent early. However, even these composers took years to master compositional craft, albeit fewer years than most other composers (including Mozart) took.

To summarize, "musical genius" is a much-used term, but one whose meaning is not clear, making it problematic to know what exactly people mean when they use this term. It can also be a daunting concept if your goal is to become a better composer, and you are reasonably confident that you are not a musical genius. My suggestion is to not allow yourself to be discouraged by terms like this, and focus instead on becoming the best composer you can become, which, as always,  is done through a combination of hard work, practice, using and developing your intelligence, studying the music of composers you admire in an effort to understand what makes it great, and finding a nurturing environment in which to do this, be it school, a group of friends with similar interests, or retreating to nature in order to compose and study music.
In any great composer's development, not very good music preceded okay music, which preceded pretty-good music, which preceded good music, which preceded great music. I cannot promise that you will write great music, but I can promise that your compositional skills will improve if you stick with it, and it is entirely possible that you have it in you to write great music one day!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spin Doctoring 101

According to Merriam-Webster, a spin doctor is "a person (such as a political aide) whose job involves trying to control the way something (such as an important event) is described to the public in order to influence what people think about it."

"Spin doctor" may also refer to a member of the 1990's eponymous band, but today's post is not about them (spoiler alert: There is an excellent likelihood that I will never write a blog about them; sorry); it's about the value of creating good publicity for your music or for an upcoming concert, particularly during interviews, where the ability to "stay on message," or to "spin" your story, can come in handy.

A Cautionary Tale, or How Not To Conduct Yourself During an Interview

Composers are sometimes interviewed. Gather 'round, kids, to hear how I sabotaged my first such opportunity!

When I was an undergraduate student, I submitted two short movements for chamber orchestra to a "call for scores" by the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop (CCMW), a Toronto organization that "workshops" (i.e., a rehearsal and recorded read-through of your submission, with feedback from the performers) new works by "emerging" Canadian composers, some of which are given the additional honour of being featured on an evening concert.

I had not yet emerged at the time this took place. In fact, I'm still working on it, but I digress. My submissions were selected to be workshopped, but they were not selected for performance on the evening concerts.

Oh well, I thought. Better than nothing. And certainly better than the donkey-kicks to the rear that are commonplace when attempting to emerge as a composer!

The workshop/rehearsal went well, thanks to both the quality of the musicians, who were excellent sight-readers, and (he added, boastfully) the staggering beauty of my parts, over which I had slaved for over a month, using a nifty, plastic music stencil, a device that ensured that all noteheads, stems, accidentals, articulations, etc., were uniform in size, producing a result that was as close to published music as possible with a pencil. So painstaking was the process that I never used the stencil again.

The musicians reacted positively to my music and asked the administrator why it hadn't be selected for an evening performance. "Why the hell is this not on the programme?" the first violinist demanded. "Yeah!" somebody else said, possibly in response to an unrelated question. Demands by first violinists must be taken seriously. The performers' endorsement was communicated to the CCMW artistic team, who were sufficiently impressed that they added my pieces to the evening concert programme. Either that, or they were desperate, perhaps having just realized that their concert was too short.

Either way, I was, of course, pleased.

To clarify, I had obviously hoped that my compositions would be chosen for an evening performance when I submitted them, but when they weren't, I was not particularly upset. That's the way things go in attempting to become a composer, or indeed an artist of any kind; you accumulate many more rejections than affirmations, and I didn't look at this as a complete rejection, since it gave me the opportunity to hear my music rehearsed by professionals in a workshop setting.

So, when I learned the good news that they had decided to programme it on a concert after all, my reaction was, "nice!" or "cool!" or something similarly moderate, not "OH MY GOD I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING! I CAN DIE A HAPPY MAN NOW!"

Not Sally Field at the 1985 Oscars, in other words. Who was awesome, in case you were wondering…

Opportunity Blown

The CCMW administrator decided that this story would make a great publicity angle — "Musicians' Endorsement Spells Boffo Break for Deservedely-Obscure Local Composer" or something like that — and got someone she knew at CBC radio to do a segment about it on the national "Arts Report."

A CBC  reporter subsequently telephoned me to have a pre-interview chat, presumably to determine my suitability as an  interview subject (although I did not realize this at the time). She asked several questions that clearly communicated the reaction she wanted from me, such as, "you must be REALLY excited to have this opportunity land on your lap like this!" and "It must be so AMAZING to have had HUGE break at such an early stage in your career!"

I, being obtuse, gave some lame response, such as "Well, yes, I’m really looking forward to hearing a good performance of my music."

This may seem like a perfectly reasonable response to you — at least it does to me — but the sad fact is that this response was sorely lacking in the enthusiasm department. An enthusiasm-fail, if you will.

My general policy on gushing (effusive or exaggerated enthusiasm) is to avoid it unless the situation unequivocally calls for it. Examples of such situations would include (but are not limited to):
  1. A snow day resulting in school cancellation;
  2. My wedding day;
  3. The birth of my children;
  4. All achievements by my children, or, for that matter, the children of people I care about;
  5. Achievements by my students;
  6. Achievements by my cats, or any cats, for that matter;
  7. Winning an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, despite the fact that I have never acted in my life, beyond pretending to know what I am doing when I teach or compose;
  8. Winning a large sum (in excess of $10 million) in a lottery; or
  9. The consumption of 2-3 jars of excellent mead. I have never actually consumed any mead, but my understanding is that it is made from fermented honey, which sounds quite yummy, and I strongly suspect that it would lead to expressions of tremendous enthusiasm on my part. About anything at all.
In any event, with a restrictive policy like this, and without any mead at hand, you can probably guess that I responded to the reporter's questions with insufficient enthusiasm for her liking.

What I realized after the fact was that the reporter wanted a "feel good" story about a nobody (i.e., me) getting the opportunity of a lifetime, and she wanted the hapless schmuck (i.e., me) to gush about it. She wasn't trying to report news; she was trying craft an interesting "human-interest" story for her listeners.

Whether she SHOULD have been trying to craft a story that basically followed a script she had already constructed beforehand is immaterial; this was one of those "it is what it is" situations, meaning that this is the way she was operating (and it is probably the way many journalists often operate), and I ought to have recognized that and used the opportunity to my advantage, thereby gaining a modicum of publicity for my music, which it had never had.

Perhaps the following level of enthusiasm was what she was after, and yes, I am in a silly mood:
Q: "How do you feel about this wonderful opportunity landing in your lap? You must be very excited!"
Okay, so perhaps it was good that I didn't go as over-the-top as the above, but, nevertheless, I could have responded more enthusiastically. Alas, I did not know how the spin-doctoring game was played.

The reporter was clearly getting frustrated with me. "You don't sound like you're very excited by this," she exclaimed at one point, berating me for not playing this game very well.

No? Perhaps this was because I WAS NOT VERY EXCITED BY THIS. Yes, in retrospect, I think that was a big part of the reason I sounded as I did.

I mean, I was pleased of course, but come on! We were discussing a new-music concert! We'd be lucky to get about 30 people to show up, most of whom would be there because their child or friend was having a composition performed, and this did not strike me as a hugely exciting proposition. I looked forward to having a good performance of my music, which virtually never happened in those days, and that was about it.

The reporter chatted with me a little longer, and said she would drop by my apartment the next day with recording equipment to interview me in person.

After I hung up, I reflected on our conversation and swiftly (but not swiftly enough!) deduced out that she had wanted me to demonstrate greater excitement, and I resolved to do this the next day during the actual interview. I practiced on my cats, which only served to alarm them.

Secretly, I think they were nonetheless impressed.

By the next day I had actually worked myself up to an unusually-high (for me) level of excitement in anticipation of the interview, although my cats were still eying me guardedly when they weren't napping. My first interview! And on a national radio show! It would be very cool if my relatives in Alberta heard this! I got up early and donned some non-hobo attire for a change, and waited patiently for the reporter to show up. Or call. Then I waited some more, less patiently… As I continued to wait, the anxiety level started to elevate…

Well, I hung around my apartment all day in an increasingly nervous state, but the reporter did not show up. Or call. Obviously, this was a a perplexing (initially) and depressing (subsequently) letdown. No call, no message; she just decided to ditch me, but neglected to let me know. To quote Jar-Jar Binks, a well-known diplomat, how rude!

A big reason I try not to get too excited about things that fall short of those listed under my very sensible "gushing policy" above is that when I do, and they don’t work out, it can be devastating, as was the case here.

The day after that, I was listening to the CBC "Arts Report" in the morning and sure enough, they had a story about the CCMW, but they had interviewed another young composer for their CCMW story, and this composer seemed very excited by the whole thing; she was gushing impressively. I was not mentioned in the story. Opportunity blown!

Well, of course that further rubbed salt on my already-wounded psyche, which, unfortunately, is the way we learn many of life’s lessons.

And the Moral of This Story is…

What I learned from that experience, and subsequent ones, is that when reporters or publicity people talk to you, they don’t necessarily care about you or your music, but they do care about constructing a story that will interest their audience. You should therefore try to give them something that will make for a good story, ideally delivered with some enthusiasm or at least a strong sense of conviction, while at the same time making the points that you feel are important. Have an agenda, in other words.

Politicians do this all the time during interviews, and it can be really annoying. They respond to questions by making short, prepared, self-aggrandizing speeches, irrespective of what they were asked, like this:
Q: How do you plan on resuscitating the stagnant economy, which has basically ground to a halt during your first term in office? 
A: Nothing is a higher priority than the economy, because the people of this great nation want to work, and they want a government that is accountable, a government that listens to people, and a government that cares about ALL people! Fiscally responsible spending, combined with prudent cuts to outdated  programmes, will produce HUGE gains for the economy, which means more money in EVERYONE'S pocket!
Impressive that so many words can basically say nothing at all and consist of meaningless platitudes! And yet it happens all the time. 

However, when an artist is interviewed, no one expects blow-hardy, meaningless platitudes. I'm not sure people expect much of anything, frankly, so you basically have carte blanche to make whatever points you wish, if you can skillfully weave them, however tenuously, into actual responses to questions asked. Like this:
Q: You must be very excited to have your music performed on this concert!
A: I was blown away by how good the musicians sounded during rehearsals — they are fantastic performers, fully committed to these exciting, brand new compositions, and I'd be excited to be at tonight's concert even if my music wasn't being performed! I've been at rehearsals of the other works on the programme, and the people who come to the concert are going to hear some exciting, amazing, and profoundly-moving music. So yeah, I'm definitely excited to have my music included on such a great programme, but I'm equally excited to hear everyone else's music as well!
I recommend thinking carefully about the story or “angle” that you want to communicate before you do an interview, and then doing your best to communicate these points succinctly. Try to keep it simple; what’s the main thing you want people to know? If there is an opportunity to make a second point, what would that be? What do you think would captivate the attention of a potential concert-goer? What image of yourself would you like to project?

Have an awareness that, in most cases, most of the audience for this interview will be lay people who will probably not be very interested in technical jargon (for hilarious examples of meaningless gobbledygook, check out The Contemporary Classical Composer's Bullshit Generator Javascript). Here's an example of meaningless-techno-babble-with-extreme-attitude that I made up:
“I commenced by constructing a scale based on the familiar 014 trichord, which I don't expect you or any member of the general public would understand, but who cares, because I don't give a damn about idiots. Of course, when cleverly transposed three times, the 014 trichord forms a hexachord whose possibilities were recognized by ancient (albeit pedestrian) composers such as Liszt and Schoenberg to be very fertile in terms of generating a rich but startlingly original (which I mean in a quasi-literal sense) sound palette. The sonic possibilities inherent in this neo-stochastic rationalization exercise are revealed in my third, sixth, and nineteenth "movements," or should I say, "stagnants," because really, that's what they are, in ways that have heretofore only "scratched" the surface, historically speaking. Or should I say, "marred," because that is another word for "scratched." I am not able to reveal more than that, because my competitors (who, without exception, are both scurrilous and unscrupulous) would steal my ideas (and therefore my glory), and I would then be compelled to initiate litigation against them in order to protect my highly-intellectual property. I have sued hundreds of composers in the past week alone! I am not to be trifled with, obviously. Before dismissing you, I will make one final point: I would rather have my masterworks performed in an empty concert hall than have a single fool show up expecting to "understand," or "relate" to the music. Nay, I say let them visit the hardware store, or go bowling, or some such pointless activity. I will take no follow-up questions at this time. Now be gone before I feel compelled to strike you!”
Disclaimer: The long, run-on paragraph above does not represent my views in any way. I like visits to hardware stores. I like bowling. I do not knowingly use the 014 trichord in my music. I like it when people show up at a concert that has my music on it. I know I shouldn't, but I do…

Most people think of music as a form of emotional expression, and yet composers often seem uncomfortable about describing their music in this way, preferring to use jargon to describe their composition process instead. So, don't be afraid to show some enthusiasm as you talk.

It is useful to know something about your audience; if you are speaking to fellow composers or composition students, then use as much technical jargon as you want. If you are speaking to an audience of new-music fanatics, you can probably get away way with describing your process in this way as well. But if you are speaking to a more general audience, such as radio listeners or people at a symphony orchestra concert, it might be good to describe the music in a more programmatic way, perhaps sharing some personal tidbits along the way.

But what if your music is without programmatic content? Well! Then you must find something else to talk about, ideally, something that will capture the imagination of someone listening to you speak. Either that, or start giving your music programmatic titles…

Actually, I must confess that it is for this very reason that I decided to start using programmatic titles for my music many years ago, after being a firm believer that "Chamber Piece No. 3," "Overture," "Prelude and Sherzo," etc., were perfectly good titles for compositions; Beethoven mostly avoided programmatic titles, and it seemed to go pretty well for him, so why not follow his lead?

However, after a few interviews and conversations with audience members who frequently wanted to know what the music was about, what it represented, what it meant, it occurred to me that by not having more imaginative titles I was creating barriers between my music, which I mostly tried to make as expressive as possible, and the audience, and thus I think almost everything I have written for about twenty-five years has a descriptive title, or subtitle, as in "Interlude for String Orchestra: La Muerte Me Está Mirando (Death is Watching Me").

Of course, this can be a difficult challenge when, as is often the case, I am not thinking of any particular programmatic content as I write the music… In cases like these, I listen to the music many, many times, trying to figure out what emotions are triggered in me by the music. I also play the music for my test market (i.e., my wife and kids) and ask for their thoughts and reactions about the music. Sometimes even the cats contribute to the process, although their ideas usually centre around food, or replenishing our supply of catnip-stuffed toys. So if one day I write something called, "Get me some Damn Catnip Toys NOW!", you'll know where I got the idea.

To Summarize…

To summarize, it is useful for composers to be aware of the benefits of communicating well with the public, if we want people to show up at our concerts and listen to our music.

This is perhaps obvious, but communicating in this way, connecting with an audience based on your ability to describe your music, is not always easy to do for most of us, which means that it would be a good strategy to plan your talking points, and maybe even try them out on people that you know and ask them for honest criticism and suggestions.

To some degree, I think that audience members just want to know something about you, perhaps to know if they can connect with you as a person or not, and hearing you talk candidly about your music from the stage before a performance will give them that, irrespective of what you say. But what you say matters too, which is why it is good to work out the way in which you want to "spin" your story.

This is something you can practice in composition class (or with friends and family), by the way; your instructor can give everyone a limited time period (perhaps two to three minutes) to discuss their music, and then class members can give feedback and suggestions to each other. Or class members could interview one another, again followed by feedback from other classmates.

Now I feel compelled to write some catnip-themed chamber music, and so I will finally end this post! Hope you enjoyed it!