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.

Why I’m not applying for my dream job

A few days ago, I spotted on Twitter a link to an advert for what is basically a dream job for me – web editor for the Tate art galleries. I’ve wanted to work for the Tate for ages, and to work on their website would be great. But there’s a downside: it’s full-time and permanent… and turning up just as I’ve decided to take three months off to focus on my music.

So I fretted for a bit, then decided to take a poll, so I put my dilemma up on Facebook and the response was overwhelming: apply for it! And to a certain extent they’re right. If I had a proper job now, I wouldn’t hesitate. If I weren’t also a composer, I wouldn’t hesitate. But most of all, if I weren’t planning on using the next few months to start to set myself up in a position where I wouldn’t need a proper day job at all, I wouldn’t hesitate. But.

So of course the next question is ‘why not apply and see what happens?’.

I’ll start with the fuzzy-hippy-wafty stuff. First up, it feels wrong. It feels like a diversion from a clear path that I’m supposed to be following. I’ve felt like this about jobs before, ignored it and regretted it. Second, I don’t know about other people, but most years I have a pretty clear feeling for what the general mood of the year will be – and I’m often right. This year feels very strongly like I need to keep myself as flexible as possible – like I’ll need to turn on a dime and be ready to take off at a moment’s notice. These are things that full-time, permanent work doesn’t play well with and the combination could mean either letting down my treasured employer and damaging my future prospects for working with them, or not doing things which may be important in either my career or personal life – not entering a high-profile call for scores, not being able to be with my mother when she has her cataracts operation, that sort of thing. This is a year that will be full of opportunities, some of which may require swift action, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it. Nor do I want to let others down by doing so. Which means a different approach is needed.

So enough of the fluffy stuff because there are more concrete reasons too. I’ve had full-time permanent day jobs before but never in my life have I done a full-time permanent job and been able to maintain compositional momentum. I’ve never even really been able to maintain compositional equilibrium – sooner or later my technical skills go backwards and after a while I find I’m not writing at all and to try to do so takes a mammoth amount of willpower. I wasted 10 years of my life like that and it’s taken another 5 to get back on track. I don’t want to waste another minute.

Part of the reason I’m planning to not have a day job at all for the next three months is that I’m signing up for individual composition lessons at the local university. After Durham, I’m really keen to start a Master’s degree soon, so I wanted to do some lessons again to remind me of what it was like to have to check in with work every week, to get some solid feedback and hopefully to also be able to stretch my compositional thinking and improve the work I’m doing. To make the most of this experience requires a goodly amount of spare time in which to compose and think and generally experiment with ideas. I’m also planning on exploring a number of alternatives for income-generation which don’t involve me having to spend 5 days a week in an office – ultimately I want to be able to mix up my day between composition and paying work to create a satisfying and profitable whole. I don’t expect to be supporting myself within three months – that would be stupid – but I do hope to have set some things in motion and hopefully be earning just a little something that I can build on.

I guess if I applied for the job I could resign myself to just working like a demon for a year and doing everything, but I’ve burnt myself out like that before – did it last year, in fact – and the thing that always suffers the most is the composition because there’s no one but me holding me accountable for doing it. And that’s not how I want it to be.

One of my goals for the new year was to ‘be more selfish’. I don’t mean that I’m not sharing my packet of chocolate biscuits with anyone, but instead to put my stuff first. To work out my priorities and work towards ensuring that they are unshiftable priorities, not something that gets pushed out of the way as soon as something that pays comes along.

There may be tightening of belts. There may be darned socks. But I’m absolutely determined that there will also be music and satisfaction and lots of it.