A career in composition: The composer as chimera

Lately I’ve been reading Erin Kissane’s interesting book on content strategy as part of my continual quest to understand how to create more effective websites, both for my own web endeavours and those of my clients. Kissane likens content strategy as a field to a chimera in that its origins come from so many areas to create something new (albeit without actual lions, goats or snakes).

Reading this, I was reminded of how much my own practice and career as a composer – and that of pretty much all my colleagues – resembles that chimera. I’m the first to admit that I’m a freakish mishmash of interests, skills and goals.

One of my favourite-ever movie quotes comes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly asks Paul what he does:

Paul: I’m a writer, I guess
Holly: You guess? Don’t you know?
Paul: OK. Positive statement. Ringing affirmative. I’m a writer.

But I suspect for a lot of us, while the artistic focus is ever-present, we spend so much time doing other things that the “I guess” is almost obligatory. I know it is for me. When the Tate videoed me for their Creative Spaces blogging project, I had to email the director afterwards in a panic and ask him to edit me – I realised that every single time I’d said “I’m a composer” I’d immediately followed it with the words “and web developer”. I’d got so much into the “I guess” mentality that I had terrible trouble producing the unqualified ringing affirmative: “I’m a composer”.

What do I mean when I say that I’m a chimera? Well, there’s the usual assortment of random influences that go into my compositions: the visual art influences, love of poetry, historical obsession with minimalism and ongoing obsession with Erik Satie. There’s the adoration of Stravinsky and a newly acquired tentative fascination with modernism. There’s the limitations brought about by my problematic relationship with traditional harmony and deeply inadequate aural skills. And so on. But what I’m really talking about is the vast number of additional roles a composer takes on just to make their work and get it out there. Here are a few of mine:

  • music copyist
  • designer
  • publisher
  • web developer
  • writer
  • promoter
  • marketing person
  • statistician
  • performer
  • recording engineer

Many of these are common to most composers these days, I suspect – to a greater or lesser extent, we’re all involved in promoting and sometimes publishing our own music, in running websites to get ourselves found and tell people what we’re doing. If all you’re doing is writing music, then chances are you have an audience of your nuclear family and dog.

In my own case, I’m actually a professional in a few of these fields, for better or worse – I hold a design degree, I’m a former copy editor and proof-reader, I’m an accredited music copyist with the Music Arrangers Guild of Australia and I’ve been designing and developing websites for creative types and corporateland ever since leaving uni in 1996.

Don’t get me wrong. I love doing most of this stuff. I really enjoy tinkering with my website and making the experience better. I like writing blog posts and making my writing as effective as I can. I gain a lot of pleasure from laying out a score well so that it can (hopefully) sit comfortably alongside scores from ‘proper’ publishing houses. But there’s no doubt in my mind at all that if I didn’t have to do all this stuff, there’d be a good deal more time for writing notes.

Portfolio careers are normal now, I would say, for most composers. If you’re serious about your composition, then they have to be because at the very least you have two jobs, and many of us will put any strings to our bows that will enable us to keep writing.

So what’s my point here? I think the point is probably one mostly for composers (or artists of any sort) who are just starting their career. If you love your art, you need to be prepared to work at a lot more than just that art, but you also need to stand up and be counted as an artist and not let yourself be taken over by the other stuff.

Positive statement. Ringing affirmative. I’m a composer.

2 Replies to “A career in composition: The composer as chimera”

  1. I know exactly what you're saying, only for me the line goes 'I'm a writer… and musician… and teacher… and composer… and…'.

    Also, I clearly remember shouting at one ex-partner who shall remain nameless, "BEETHOVEN DIDN'T HAVE TO CLEAN THE HOUSE!!!!"

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